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Commentary: We can protect farm kids without onerous regulations

Issue Date: March 14, 2012
By Bob Stallman
A proposed federal rule would prevent kids from performing many chores on their grandparents’ farm and would prevent kids under 16 from getting a summer job at a neighbor’s farm, even with their parent’s consent.
Photo/ Matt Hargreaves, Utah Farm Bureau
Bob Stallman

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.

(Bob Stallman, a rice and cattle producer from Texas, is president of the American Farm Bureau Federation.)

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

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