The U.S. Department of Labor meant well in pursuing changes that would prevent children from working on farms. But those good intentions only paved the road to hellacious —and understandable — opposition from farmers and farm organizations.
Chief among the litany of criticisms was that such changes would alter the face of family farming in America. Others focused on the principles that government officials should stay out of family decisions and ought not meddle in an area they know little about.
Critics were kinder after the department withdrew its plans. Said National Grange President Ed Luttrell: “We applaud their decision to withdraw and believe this to be a victory for America’s farm families.”
Kansas officials joined the chorus, with Gov. Sam Brownback saying, “The learning opportunities provided by working in agriculture are second to none.” Added Attorney General Derek Schmidt: “This decision helps ensure that our rural way of life can continue for another generation.”
Federal officials, urged by some child advocacy groups, had sought to prohibit youth under 18 from working in stockyards, grain bins and feed lots on farms owned by people other than their immediate families. Children under 16 also would have been prohibited from using most power-driven farm equipment, including tractors and lawn mowers, even if trained to do so.
But groups such as the Child Labor Coalition, which supported the changes, were hardly the only child advocates involved. On the other side were farm parents and farm groups such as 4-H. They argued, persuasively, that the proposals would have prohibited young family members from working on farms owned by uncles and other relatives. Such traditions save money and expose young people to other farm operations and techniques. In the process, future farmers learn countless life lessons, not the least of which are responsibility and independence and the value of hard work.
The Labor Department’s surrender wasn’t quite absolute. In lieu of the proposed limits, the department said it would work with farmers and organizations such as 4-H, FFA and the American Farm Bureau Federation to try to cut down on the number of accidents involving young workers. That’s more like it.
As long as federal bureaucrats resist the urge to tell farm groups how it’s going to be and instead are willing to learn from folks who know and appreciate the hazards of farm work, they just might end up reducing the number of accidents among young farm workers. And that was the original idea.