Labor department bends on child farm labor exemptions

After a firestorm of protest from farmers and agricultural groups like the FFA, the U.S. Labor Department relaxed its proposed child farm labor rules, saying that it would exempt children under the age of 16 from child farm labor rules in cases where a parent is either part owner, member of a partnership, or an officer with substantial ownership interest in the farm. The original proposal exempted children only in cases where the farm was “wholly owned” by the child’s parents.

Dillon Harvey and Taylor Asay ride their horses down Main Street in Lovell in December. The boys fit the profile of children who would be most affected by the new child labor regulations proposed by the federal government in that they have learned about horses on a ranch not directly owned by their parents. Asay said he learned everything he knows about horses from working with his grandfather at a very early age.

Children who are not exempt under the family rule would not be allowed to perform many work activities on farms like driving tractors, working with large animals, herding on horseback and even rounding up chickens for slaughter under the current proposal.

Although the recently expanded exemptions help family farms, they don’t do much for educational programs like the FFA and 4-H, where children who may not necessarily come from a farm or ranch family are afforded the opportunity to have a true “hands-on” agricultural learning experience through supervised projects like raising beef for market or learning to operate farm equipment.

“This is one more step of taking future agriculturalists out of the field,” said FFA advisor for Lovell High School Wil Zollman. “It would take away a possible career choice.”

Zollman has 31 students enrolled in the FFA program at Lovell High School. Fifty-two students attend the ag classes he teaches at the school. Zollman estimates that at least half of the students in the FFA program he supervises would be affected should these new rules go into effect.

Currently, two of his students are participating in a work-study project where they learn by working on a farm along side another student and his grandfather. Should the new rules pass, this type of arrangement would not be possible.

Rocky Mountain High School’s FFA advisor Christin Shorma is also “concerned” about how these proposed rules would affect her program.

“Whatever the rule ends up being, the kids still should be allowed to have their fair projects and their supervised learning experience (SAEs) outside of class,” said Shorma.

Shorma has one student in her group who started a horse training business as his FFA project.

“He does a great job with it, his parents support him doing it and he is safe about how he does it,” said Shorma. “I think when you learn at a younger age how to work with large animals and how to respond to them appropriately, it serves you well, and helps you later in life. To me it’s really an important skill to know.”

The labor department continues to review public comments from farm groups, politicians and producers and is expected to release a new proposal this summer. The new proposal will be followed by another comment period.

By Patti Carpenter