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Commentary: Proposal would limit on-farm opportunities for youths

Issue Date: December 21, 2011
By Lynne Finnerty
Analysts say proposed Labor Department rules on youth employment in agriculture could have wide-ranging impacts, including limits on vocational education programs such as 4-H and FFA.

Every summer, rural teenagers get jobs on local farms to earn some cash while being outdoors. Some just enjoy helping a relative or neighbor on his farm or ranch—because it really is a great experience to drive a tractor.

Across rural America, young people help cut and bale hay on other people's land. In the Midwest, many a teen has worked as a corn detasseler, removing tassels from one variety of plants so they can be pollinated by another and create a high-yield hybrid. For others, their first job might have been picking fruit in an orchard.

By working on farms, their own family's or someone else's, young people learn about agriculture, how to respect and care for animals and how to work safely with farm equipment. They also learn important values, such as a good work ethic and taking on responsibility.

But under a Labor Department proposal, such work could be off-limits to minors. They would not be allowed to work on a farm that isn't directly owned by their parents or operate any power-driven equipment, even something as simple as a battery-powered screwdriver.

"Under this proposal, it sounds like youths would be allowed to push open the barn door, but whether they can flip the light switch inside is unclear," explained American Farm Bureau Federation labor specialist Paul Schlegel. "But they sure couldn't use a flashlight or pick up a weed whacker. And they couldn't go up in the barn loft because it's greater than six feet above ground level."

The real impacts aren't fully understood. It could depend literally on how government regulators write the final rules and then interpret them. Most likely, young people couldn't even work on their own family farm if, like many farms these days, it's set up as a corporation or partnership, not wholly owned by the kid's parents.

The Labor Department says its proposal is needed to protect young people from dangerous work. However, as is often the case when the feds deal with an issue, the proposal goes too far. It's like trying to kill a gnat with a sledgehammer.

Farm work can have its hazards, and no one wants kids working when and where they shouldn't be. But ask any farmer how she learned to do farm work, correctly and safely, and you're likely to hear that she grew up doing it on either a family farm or through agricultural education programs, which also would be at risk if kids are not allowed to do many farm tasks. If we can't train the next generation of farmers, then the implications go beyond whether a teenager can earn a little spending money.

Parents, not the federal government, should decide what's safe for their kids. For those jobs that are particularly hazardous, the government has a role to play. But the government should at least write rules that won't threaten the very structure of family farms and rural communities.

The comment period on the proposal has closed. Now the government will continue with the rulemaking process. As it does, it is hoped that the rules will make more sense for how farms work today, and for youngsters who want the experience of working on a farm. It will be important for farm families and agricultural educators to weigh in to ensure that outcome.

(Lynne Finnerty is the editor of FBNews, the American Farm Bureau Federation newspaper.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.

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