Update, April 26, 7:55 p.m.: Citing public outrage, the Department of Labor has withdrawn the controversial rulemaking proposal described in this article.
A proposal from the Obama administration to prevent children from doing farm chores has drawn plenty of criticism from rural-district members of Congress. But now it’s attracting barbs from farm kids themselves.
The Department of Labor is poised to put the finishing touches on a rule that would apply child labor laws to children working on family farms, prohibiting them from performing a list of jobs on their own families’ land.
Under the rules, most children under 18 could no longer work “in the storing, marketing and transporting of farm product raw materials.”
“Prohibited places of employment,” a Department press release read, “would include country grain elevators, grain bins, silos, feed lots, stockyards, livestock exchanges and livestock auctions.”
The new regulations, first proposed August 31 by Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, would also revoke the government’s approval of safety training and certification taught by independent groups like 4-H and FFA, replacing them instead with a 90-hour federal government training course.
Rossie Blinson, a 21-year-old college student from Buis Creek, N.C., told The Daily Caller that the federal government’s plan will do far more harm than good.
“The main concern I have is that it would prevent kids from doing 4-H and FFA projects if they’re not at their parents’ house,” said Blinson.
“I started showing sheep when I was four years old. I started with cattle around 8. It’s been very important. I learned a lot of responsibility being a farm kid.”
In Kansas, Cherokee County Farm Bureau president Jeff Clark was out in the field — literally on a tractor — when TheDC reached him. He said if Solis’s regulations are implemented, farming families’ labor losses from their children will only be part of the problem.
“What would be more of a blow,” he said, “is not teaching our kids the values of working on a farm.”
The Environmental Protection Agency reports that the average age of the American farmer is now over 50.
“Losing that work ethic — it’s so hard to pick this up later in life,” Clark said. “There’s other ways to learn how to farm, but it’s so hard. You can learn so much more working on the farm when you’re 12, 13, 14 years old.”
John Weber, 19, understands. The Minneapolis native grew up in suburbia and learned the livestock business working summers on his relatives’ farm.
He’s now a college Agriculture major.
“I started working on my grandparent’s and uncle’s farms for a couple of weeks in the summer when I was 12,” Weber told TheDC. “I started spending full summers there when I was 13.”
“The work ethic is a huge part of it. It gave me a lot of direction and opportunity in my life. If they do this it will prevent a lot of interest in agriculture. It’s harder to get a 16 year-old interested in farming than a 12 year old.”
Weber is also a small businessman. In high school, he said, he took out a loan and bought a few steers to raise for income. “Under these regulations,” he explained, “I wouldn’t be allowed to do that.”
In February the Labor Department seemingly backed away from what many had called an unrealistic reach into farmers’ families, reopening the public comment period on a section of the regulations designed to give parents an exemption for their own children.
But U.S. farmers’ largest trade group is unimpressed.
“American Farm Bureau does not view that as a victory,” said Kristi Boswell, a labor specialist with the American Farm Bureau Federation. “It’s a misconception that they have backed off on the parental exemption.”
That narrow “parental exception” has quickly become a political football in U.S. agriculture. The Farm Bureau and one other national agricultural group told TheDC that it would only apply to parents who “wholly own” their own farms.
That would rule out kids working on an uncle’s farm, or a grandfather’s, and it would ban teens from working on farms where ownership is split — even among several generations of the same family. It would also mean teens couldn’t be around when their friends are doing farm work.
Estimates vary on the number of children who live on farms their parents “wholly own.” One state-level Farm Bureau cited an internal estimate of less than 30 percent. That number, the organization said, takes into account the fact that many farms in animal agriculture are part-owned by the large food companies that ultimately purchase the mat after slaughter.
More than 10,000 letters and emails poured in when the regulation was opened up for public comment in late 2011. Boswell’s objection stems from Labor Secretary Solis’ decision to give the public a second chance to weigh in after the first round of public opinion was decidedly in favor of letting kids participate fully in agriculture.
Boswell also chafed at the government’s rationale — injury rates — for bringing farms strictly into line with child labor laws.
“They have said the number of injuries are higher for children than in non-ag industries,” she said. But everyone in agriculture, Boswell insisted, “makes sure youth work in tasks that are age-appropriate.”
The safety training requirements strike many in agriculture as particularly strange, given an injury rate among young people that is already falling rapidly.
According to a United States Department of Agriculture study, farm accidents among youth fell nearly 40 percent between 2001 and 2009, to 7.2 injuries per 1,000 farms.
Clark said the regulations are vague and meddlesome.
“It’s so far-reaching,” he exclaimed, “kids would be prohibited from working on anything ‘power take-off’ driven, and anything with a work-height over six feet — which would include the tractor I’m on now.”
The way the regulations are currently written, he added, would prohibit children under 16 from using battery powered screwdrivers, since their motors, like those of a tractor, are defined as “power take-off driven.”
And jobs that could “inflict pain on an animal” would also be off-limits for kids. But “inflicting pain,” Clark explained, is left undefined: If it included something like putting a halter on a steer, 4-H and FFA animal shows would be a thing of the past.
In a letter to The Department of Labor in December, Montana Republican Rep. Denny Rehberg complained that the animal provision would also mean young people couldn’t “see veterinary medicine in practice … including a veterinarian’s own children accompanying him or her to a farm or ranch.”
Boswell told TheDC that the new farming regulations could be finalized as early as August. She claimed farmers could soon find The Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division inspectors on their land, citing them for violations.
“In the last three years that division has grown 30 to 40 percent,” Boswell said. Some Farm Bureau members, she added, have had inspectors on their land checking on conditions for migrant workers, only to be cited for allowing their own children to perform chores that the Labor Department didn’t think were age-appropriate.
It’s something Kansas Republican Senator Jerry Moran believes simply shouldn’t happen.
During a March 14 hearing, Moran blasted Hilda Solis for getting between rural parents and their children.
“The consequences of the things that you put in your regulations lack common sense,” Moran said.
“And in my view, if the federal government can regulate the kind of relationship between parents and their children on their own family’s farm, there is almost nothing off-limits in which we see the federal government intruding in a way of life.”
The Department of Labor did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
This article was updated after publication to clarify the Department of Labor’s proposed rules related to the narrow “parental exception.” The update comprises the first four paragraphs, above, on page 2 of the article.
Watch Sen. Moran lecture Hilda Solis:
[dcvideo videoid=”24777177″ name=”ndnPlayer_24777177″ type=”ndn” /]