When Larry Botkins was asked to drive a tractor trailer during an annual sugar beet harvest, he didn’t think the short-term job offer would pave the way for him to come back to help teach future drivers.
But, with the help of FastForward’s CDL training program at Mountain Gateway Community College (MGCC), Botkins transformed his two-month driving stint into a focused skill that made him a better driver and gave him the opportunity to find work locally.
While not all states require CDL for farm drivers, Botkins wanted to improve his driving skills and diversify his employment opportunities outside of his two-month adventure.
“In early 2023, I enrolled in the CDL program at Mountain Gateway Community College, primarily in hopes of securing employment at Velocity Rail, a local firm which refuels locomotives,” Botkins said. “A secondary reason was to increase my driving skills if I was asked to drive during the 2023 harvest.”
Botkins modestly described his skills behind the wheel, sharing that his success in the 2022 harvest was purely “beginners luck.”
But sugar beet driving is incredibly challenging because the tractor trailers are heavily loaded in often muddy fields. The six-axle trucks feature air pressure systems that are monitored and controlled by the driver, allowing them to increase traction in muddy fields and then reduce pressure to adapt to high-speed highway use.
Imagine driving a 16-wheeled vehicle filled to the brim with beets while also monitoring traction to prevent getting stuck. Add in only a few inches of clearance on either side of the trailer while dumping loads, and you have yourself a tricky situation.
Safe to say, Botkins learned quickly and performed well.
However, as Botkins wrapped up the last part of the harvest, he struggled to maneuver and park the trailer for storage over the winter. “That was hugely embarrassing,” he said.
That’s when the instructors at MGCC swooped in, and Botkins could not say enough good things about the incredible support and expertise he received in the classroom.
As the end of summer approached, Botkins was delighted to hear his former sugar beet employer needed his help again for the 2023 harvest. He accepted the invitation with open arms and was met with a wonderful surprise: Botkins would also be helping teach new drivers how to load and operate the trucks!
Every day from August through October, Botkins instructed students ranging from restaurant waitresses to full-time farmers’ employees on how to drive sugar beet tractor-trailers.
“My specialty was teaching people the intricate dance of driving a tractor-trailer alongside the sugar beet harvesters while they filled the trucks,” he said.
The final measure of success for Botkins’ new teaching career came when his team was tasked with a 24-hour harvest in late October. What were the results? Perfect delivery, no truck accidents, no damaged equipment, and most importantly, no injuries.
“During every moment of driving instruction, and every inch of solo driving, I made use of the skills I learned at MGCC,” Botkins added. “And yes, when I parked my tractor-trailer at the end of the harvest, I backed it into the appropriate spot like I’d been driving tractor-trailers for years.”
While beet truck drivers are essential to farmers’ livelihoods, Botkins reminded us that the bigger takeaway of his story is helping future students learn that community college instructors are there to help every step of the way. “What’s important is that the expert instructors at MGCC are ensuring safety on the nation’s roads and saving lives,” Botkins said.
Are you ready to start a career that helps farmers transport their harvest each year? See how FastForward can help you earn a CDL today by visiting https://fastforwardva.org/credential_cats/logistics-transportation/ .