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For a lot of farm kids, "learning to drive" means learning to drive a tractor before ever driving a car.
Tractors are a big part of family farm life, which is one reason advocacy groups and dozens of congressional representatives have heavily criticized a U.S. Department of Labor proposal that would bar children under age 16 from doing many dangerous farm jobs, such as driving a tractor and handling pesticides. The outcry has been so strong that on Monday, the agency backed away from the Nov. 1 deadline it had set for public comment and extended it another month.
But while traditional family farmers say the change threatens the future of agriculture, child and labor advocates say the plans are a much-needed update to protect vulnerable young workers.
The changes do include a legal exemption for farm families that would allow children to work on the farms owned by their parents. But it would still affect many small farmers who hire kids in the summer or who have extended family members work on their land.
At the 20-acre farm of Julie and Scott Wilber near Boone, Iowa, for example, Drew, 14, and Jade, 12, could still do any work their parents ask of them under the changes. But the Wilbers' employee, 15-year-old MacKenzie Lewis, would be prohibited from driving the four-wheelers used on many farms, mowing grass or working around animals.
The Wilbers say finding part-time seasonal workers is difficult; they can't spend a lot on wages and need sporadic help for hard, manual labor.
"It's easier to hire kids or teachers, because people who have regular full-time jobs aren't going to quit their job to work in the summer," Julie Wilber says.
Ag advocacy groups are also outraged about the changes. They say the government doesn't understand how agriculture gets done today.
Most farms are now organized under a corporation that includes multiple members of an extended family — uncles, aunts, brothers, sisters, grandparents — but having that status would mean many families that count on their kids wouldn't be exempt, says Jordan Dux, national affairs coordinator with the Nebraska Farm Bureau.
"So kids of individuals who are involved in a family corporation would no longer be able to help mom and dad on the ranch, on the farm. They wouldn't be able to work with animals. They wouldn't be able to work on hay wagons stacking bales 6 feet tall," he said. "There are lots of ... typical farm practices that ... would be outlawed by the Department of Labor."
The plan's critics also say the regulations would hinder the recruitment of the next generation of farmers and ranchers, calling it a direct hit on youth groups like 4-H and Future Farmers of America.
Farm work is one of the most dangerous occupations, and it frequently affects the 1.26 million children under age 20 who live on farms in the U.S. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, an average of 104 children die each year as a result of a farm-related injury, and more than 22,000 kids are injured.
Child safety advocates and others applauded the Labor Department's announcement and said the changes are long overdue. Others, like Barry Estabrook, a food journalist who has done extensive reporting on farm labor, particularly in Florida tomato fields, says given the extent of injuries, the proposal was "timid at best."
Children who work in agriculture have little protection under the Fair Labor Standards Act, unlike their counterparts who work in other occupations, Estabrook said. Young people who work on farms "have suffered under a federally mandated double standard," Estabrook writes on his "Politics of the Plate" blog.
"I don't see it as any more ludicrous to envision a child driving a bulldozer or a backhoe on a construction site than driving a backhoe in the farm fields," he said in an interview. "What is the fundamental difference?"
In a separate update, the Labor Department also proposed preventing anyone under age 18 from working at stockyards, livestock auctions, commercial feed lots or grain elevators — sites of several high-profile deaths. Six of the 26 people who suffocated in grain elevator deaths last year were under the age of 16, according to a Purdue University study.
Public Citizen, a congressional watchdog, supports the increased protections. Justin Feldman, a worker health and safety advocate with the group, points to the case of two 17-year-old boys in Oklahoma who were caught in a grain auger in an accident last summer.
"It took the fire department an hour to cut through the grain auger, and each one lost a leg. They were athletes," Feldman says. "They were going into their senior year in high school. And now their lives have been very much changed."
Peggy Lowe is a reporter for Harvest Public Media.
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