Commentary: Producers 1, kids zero

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Thousands of kids are now officially bummed out, just as summer’s approaching.

That’s because the Department of Labor this week has officially withdrawn its controversial proposal to limit child labor on farms. The proposed changes, formulated in the name of safety, would have prohibited kids under 16 from doing most of what’s required to keep a farmstead functioning, namely, driving tractors, tending livestock or running power equipment.

I’m sure that for plenty of farm kids across the country it would have been a glorious summer.

Now, not so much.

Yet the bad news for teens is good news for family farmers and producers. On many—if not most—smaller operations, all of the family members are needed to pitch in and help with the myriad chores required to tend crops and raise animals. In both cases, there are but a few short seasonal lulls; otherwise, agricultural production is a labor-intensive proposition.

I don’t pretend I grew up on a farm, but I did pick apples and cherries as a youngster during summers in upstate New York, and my kids picked strawberries during their younger days, back when Oregon had a far more robust industry prior to that state’s enactment of child labor protections years ago.

The hard work and pitiful earnings back then didn’t make a man out of me, but it sure didn’t do any damage to learn the lesson that even the simplest of foods—a piece of fruit—come with somebody’s toil and effort connected with it.

For once, a positive response

What’s more noteworthy about the Obama administration’s decision to withdraw the proposed restrictions on what work teen-agers could be allowed to do isn’t just the likely positive impact on a whole lot of farm kids’ collective work ethic, it’s that government actually listened—and responded—to the voices of those affected by the proposals.

According to DOL’s tabulation, more than 10,000 comments on the proposed rule were submitted. In shelving the proposal, DOL’s official statement noted that, “Many of the comments were from parents who own or operate farms who believed that the Department’s proposal would limit their ability to employ their own children on their farm and to provide their children with hands-on experiences in agricultural occupations.”

Honestly, I doubt if more than a couple dozen out of those 10,000 comments actually came from the kids themselves. Not many teen-agers exhibit any angst about not being able to enjoy “hands-on experiences in agricultural occupations” as the highlight of their childhood.

Nonetheless, despite comments from certain members of Congress and more than a few academics and advocacy group representatives, who supported the Department’s proposals by citing data demonstrating the safety hazards inherent in working on farms, comments by 153 House of Representatives, 42 Senators and a number of agricultural education teachers that emphasized the importance of preparing the next generation of farmers and ranchers swayed the day.

As much as many would love to continue the debate about the safety, or alleged dangers, of working on a ranch or farm, the underlying “crisis” here isn’t about preventing accidents or injuries, but doing all we can as a society and government to ensure that we will, in fact, continue to have functioning, prosperous farm and producer community far into the future.

And it’s true that without the opportunity not just to crank out chores but to learn about the art and science of livestock and food production, a heck of a lot fewer young people are going to decide that their future ought to be tied to the land and to the challenges of feeding people here and around the world.

It’s easy to romanticize the business of food production, and many otherwise clueless consumers eagerly buy into the narratives of many alternative agriculture practitioners that our food should be produced on small-scale, family-owned, organically certified operations. That’s fine, and as a segment of agriculture, such farms deserve to be part of a diversified ag sector.

But all such operations are labor-intensive, and without thousands of young people willing to shoulder that labor, no amount of demand among the affluent consumers who typically patronize the products of alternative producers, those idyllic family farms will go the way of a whole lot of other conventional, less romantic, family farms that were crippled by the high costs of labor relative to the thin profit margins that bad weather or soft markets can quickly create.

The bottom line here is that DOL’s decision to allow farm families to manage their operations without excessive restrictions is a positive development with potentially important outcomes down the road.

There’s no bad news here—unless your summer schedule’s now going to be filled up with driving tractors, tending livestock and running power equipment.

Sorry about that, kids.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.


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