For the first time in nearly 40 years, the federal government plans to impose new child labor rules for youth working on farms and ranches. The proposed regulations would limit exposure to pesticides, ban tractor driving, rounding up chickens for slaughter, herding stock on horseback and branding cattle by children younger than 16 years of age. It directly affects hands-on training programs offered by 4-H and FFA in which children learn by doing on farms and ranches that often are not owned by their parents.
The Association of Agricultural Educators and the Future Farmers of America are opposed to the changes and have publicly urged their members to write to their legislators to express their opposition to the planned new rules. Family farmers and ranchers are outraged that the government would interfere with a way of life that has been passed down for generations in their families. More than 150 legislators have signed a document stating their opposition.
Wil Zollman wasn’t raised on a farm, but he learned most of what he knows about agriculture from his uncles and his grandfather. That includes driving a truck on his grandfather’s farm before he could see over the steering wheel without standing on the seat.
Zollman was fascinated by agriculture from an early age. He went on to college and earned a degree in agricultural education. Now he passes on those many years of knowledge and experience to young people as the ag sciences instructor and FFA adviser at Lovell High School.
He also passes it on to his own son, who is only 5, and as Zollman put it, “knows the name of every tool in the shed because he works beside me every chance he gets.”
According to Zollman, had the new labor rules for kids working on farms been in effect when he was a child, the course of his life might have changed. He fits the profile of a person who would have been most affected by the new rules because they would have severely limited the type of hands-on experience he got working side-by-side with his extended family.
Cynthis Lummis grew up on a family ranch in Wyoming. She now represents the state as a congresswoman.
In a letter to Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis she wrote, “There may be good intentions behind your proposal, but that does not justify this federal intrusion into the livelihood of America’s farming and ranching community, of which I am a proud member. Agriculture is at once an occupation, a way of life and a cultural asset of rural communities.
It is a complex and technologically advanced trade, the perpetuation of which is critical to meet rapidly increasing global demand for a safe and reliable food supply. America’s agricultural tradition is based on the intergenerational transfer of skills and knowledge, most of which must be obtained through hands-on experience.”
She expressed her concern that the Department of Labor’s “rulemaking” would have negative consequences for family farms and ranches and will adversely affect training provided by 4-H and FFA clubs across the country.
She and other congressmen object to the fact that the new rules were initiated without congressional approval.
Lummis added in her letter, “Your proposed rule imposes new limits on youth operation and maintenance of tractors and other equipment, interaction with livestock and herding on horseback. What your rules don’t recognize is that supervised exposure to these tools and activities is the most effective way to instill safe practices. The notion that the federal government knows better than an experienced farmer or rancher how to acclimate young people to agriculture is beyond comprehension.”
Part-time farmer Bret George operates a small family farm in Byron. He learned much of what he knows from his grandfather and his uncles while his father was employed away from the farm.
“I own beef, chickens and bees on my farm,” said George. “My kids have daily responsibilities having to do with this part of my operation. I do this to pass on the work ethic to my children that I learned from my grandfather.”
George is opposed to the new regulations in part because he doesn’t like the federal government involved in his business, and he thinks the new rules would hurt small farms.
“In the U.S., small farms are going away because they can’t compete with large commercial operations who have the resources to hire help,” explained George. “I don’t think the government should tell farmers who they can or cannot use on the farm.”
George has six children ages 3 to 15. He and his wife, Rachel, have a relatively small operation where they raise food mostly for their own family.
“My cows are fed by my kids at an age of no later than 10,” said George. “My daughter (Aston) at age 14 helps me by driving the truck in the field when I’m throwing hay to the cows. She’s a big help to me.”
Rocky Mountain High School FFA adviser Christin Shorma thinks that the proposed revisions to the child labor regulations will have a notable effect on FFA members.
“FFA requires that students have a supervised agricultural experience project (SAE) in at least one of 47 different areas,” explained Shorma. “Students begin their projects as freshmen, when most of them are 14. From their SAEs students learn practical skills through hands-on experience. They gain work ethic and learn record keeping, business and many other invaluable job skills.”
She cited an example of one of her students who works with his father for his father’s employer. That student would not be able to do that work along side his father under the new regulations.
“As a teacher, child safety is a high priority for me,” said Shorma. “I also value the work ethic and love for the outdoors that a person gains when they grow up in agriculture. I hope that the Department of Labor can expertly balance these two ideals.”
By Patti Carpenter