Commentary: We can protect farm kids without onerous regulations

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Editor's note: The following article, written by American Farm Bureau Federation President Bob Stallman, was originally posted on AgAlert, the weekly newsletter for the California Farm Bureau Federation.

As a boy growing up in southeast Texas, I not only worked on my family's farm, I lived and breathed it. What many people outside of rural America don't understand is that farm work for a kid is not just a chore or a job, it's a way of life. Learning to drive a tractor comes as naturally as riding a bike, and there's nothing that teaches a kid more discipline and commitment than milking a cow. It was "American Gothic" painter Grant Wood who once said, "All the good ideas I ever had came to me while I was milking a cow."

Farm work has always played a significant role in the lives of rural youth across the country, whether they are milking cows on their grandparents' farm or harvesting apples as a summer job. But, because of general misunderstanding and over-zealous activists, the ability of rural kids to perform traditional farm chores and jobs is in serious jeopardy.

A proposed rule released by the U.S. Department of Labor would have detrimental effects on farm families. No longer would kids be allowed to do many chores on their grandparents' farms, nor would kids under 16 be allowed to get a typical summer job at their neighbor's farm even with their parent's consent. Under the Labor Department rule as it was proposed last September, a child can only work on a farm that is "wholly owned" by his or her parents.

Farm Bureau is hopeful that the recent decision by the Labor Department to re-propose the "parental exemption" will be a positive step, but we simply don't know. If the Labor Department decides to, it could interpret the parental exemption in a way that would make it much more difficult if not impossible for nieces, nephews and grandchildren to work on the family farm.

Let's take a look at Missouri hog producer Chris Chinn, who grew up doing chores on her grandparents' farm. As she testified before Congress last month, she never would have had those life-shaping experiences if the Labor Department rule had been in place back then. Even more disturbing is that her two children won't be allowed the same experiences of doing routine chores on their grandparents' farm if the Labor Department goes forward with its initial plan.

The Labor Department rule would also put strict limits on what hired youth can and can't do. In updating its "hazardous occupation orders," the department is saying that a youth under the age of 16 would be mostly prohibited from working with livestock or operating equipment that's not driven by hand or foot power. Read literally, the Labor Department proposal would mean a 15-year-old could not operate a hand-held, battery-powered screwdriver to mend fences or be hired to mow lawns.

Farm and ranch families are more interested than anyone else in assuring the safety of our farms. We have no desire at all to have young teenagers working in jobs that are inappropriate or entail too much risk. But regulations need to be sensible and within reason—not prohibiting teenagers from performing simple everyday farm functions like operating a battery-powered screwdriver.

Members in the House and Senate, on both sides of the aisle, have called for the rule to be withdrawn, and Farm Bureau agrees. But if the Labor Department proceeds, as seems likely, we will be working actively to assure that any final regulation makes sense, does not infringe on the traditional rights of family farms and does not unnecessarily restrict the ability of young people to work in agriculture. In other words, we need a rule that respects the significance of youth farm work in America and the importance it plays in our system of family-based agriculture.

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kansas  |  March, 15, 2012 at 09:07 AM

Thank you FB, and it's about time time the FB stood up against Something the Nanny State proposes. Farmers, in general, need to resist and refuse government "aid" in all its forms because THIS is where dependency leads.

Thom Katt    
Midwest  |  March, 15, 2012 at 03:22 PM

I agree that the DOL proposal for additional regualtions that would prevent young people from working on farms was misguided and poorly thought out. But we need to step back and look at the big picture. Young people aren't the only ones gettnig hurt on farms. DOL shouldn't end the thought process at "How can we keep kids safer? Easy, exclude them." DOL , AFBF and all of our universities and equipment manufactures need to be finding ways to keep every body, young and old, safer in farm work. Porknetwork ran another article today that indicates ag occupations have a rate of injury that runs a full person per 100 higher than the average of all other industries. Being a farmer, fisherman or logger is more dangerous than being a police officer or a firemen. My parents sold our family farm when I was in highschool. I was the only one of four that didn't suffer a broken bone or amputation in the preceding 18 years (Probably because I was sheltered. Dad was a three time winner\looser). That isn't good odds. The goal needs to foucs on making farming safer for everybody involved, not just children.

J Shaffer    
OH  |  March, 22, 2012 at 11:19 AM

I grew up on a farm and loved it. I have never heard of the number of injuries that you alude to, not in our community, county or state.

Iowa  |  March, 15, 2012 at 03:28 PM

I'd love someone to compare the average health of tractor-driving, tool-wielding farm kids to video-game-playing, tv-watching city kids. I'd be shocked if the farm kids didn't come out ahead by every measure. Yes, there are risks involved, but in a world where childhood obesity is one of our biggest health problems, we'd probably live longer if MORE kids worked on farms, not less. And for the record, I was a city kid.

mike childress    
nc  |  March, 17, 2012 at 01:48 PM

Don`t we have enough problems with the youth of our country. If this passes it will take away a of life for a large population in the US. It also will give the youth more free time to find trouble and lose structure in their life. Over all these also is our goverment taking another step to take another freedom away and create revenue for itself with fines.

SD  |  April, 03, 2012 at 11:36 AM

First stories about this issue stated a secretary in the department noticed that there had been no new regulations in 50 years! It isn't necessarily a tragedy for no new 'rules' to force us to all be the same, is it? Never mentioned is the fact that farmers/ranchers ourselves HAVE taken steps to cut accidents by developing classes for parents, alerting us to the dangers to our kids, and more training for young folks wanting to work on farms. Just because this branch of government didn't know that is no excuse to make it impossible for many of our youth to learn to work, to earn some money, and to have meaningful and beneficial exercise. It's possible I missed mention by these regulators of numbers of children injured in farm work, but believe Farm Bureau may have been the one mentioning that the rate of injuries has dropped significantly in recent years. T. Katt, I'm very sorry your family had such an accident prone life. That is certainly not the norm. Could there have been bone irregularities among your siblings? Were they encouraged to work at too difficult jobs without proper training and supervision? There truly are families where such things have happened, really through no ones' fault, but possibly lack of knowledge was involved.....or maybe not. Such rare incidences are not reason to prevent other kids from the benefits of farm work. Often grandparents or other relatives are the only ones able to pay the wages, and that fact should not prevent relatives from working IF they are shown how to do the jobs and are supervised properly. We also need to compare records of injuries to kids from other activities in other living circumstances to have an accurate picture of the 'necessity' of more government regulation. This could be more a case of 'regulation happy' bureaucrats than a real need, from my observation.


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