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Children on farms: A conceit over fatalities

"We simply cannot — and this administration will not — stand by while youngsters working on farms are robbed of their childhood."

— Department of Labor, May 2010

By Paul Schwennesen

Thus reads the sentiment justifying a sweeping new rule that will revamp existing child labor regulations and, we are led to presume, confound the lucrative trade in stolen childhoods.

The proposed rule making, currently open to public comment, is intended to protect kids from excessively dangerous activities and employer wage predation. And who can argue with that? Anyone maintaining that children be exposed to "particularly hazardous" activities is clearly odious, plainly in need of a thorough reeducation by authorities.

As usual, however, semantics define the debate. Let’s look at some of these "particularly hazardous" provisions. According to the proposed rules, it’s okay to hire the 15-year-old neighbor kid as long as he doesn’t:


  • Work on a roof, scaffold, or anything more than 6 feet high
  • Operate any power driven machine (unless he’s enrolled in a state-sanctioned vocational education class and has proper certifications and has passed documented and filed written exams)
  • Drive my tractor
  • Hook my tractor up to any implement
  • Ride as a passenger in my tractor (unless equipped with seatbelt and separate passenger seat)
  • Work in my corral with any un-castrated male livestock older than six months
  • Cut down trees (of any diameter)
  • Attend a livestock auction
  • Move meat in and out of our freezers
  • Put out ant or rodent poison
  • Work inside our hay barn
  • Brand, ride horses, catch chickens, or doctor injured animals


Maybe I’m cranky, but that pretty well puts him out of commission as far as my business is concerned. Weed pulling might be allowed (weed eaters are out, remember "power driven"?), but my dangerous livestock lurks nearby and frankly I’d rather they did the weed eating.

Folks, this is absurdly, radically out of control. Can you imagine Abraham Lincoln coming of age under the paternalist aegis of the Department of Labor? Do we think for one moment that NIOSH standards allow for rail-splitting? George Washington might have felled a cherry tree, but his employer would have paid handsomely for the infraction under the Fair Labor and Standards Act. The young Thomas Jefferson would have been kept safely out of harm’s way under Hazardous Operation 13, which precludes anyone under sixteen from "planting, cultivating, topping, harvesting, baling, barning, and curing of tobacco."

Good Intentions

I do not doubt the noble intent behind such rulemaking. Nothing so grips our collective concern like reports of child-employee fatalities; it’s natural to want to do something about them. Dickensian hells, replete with appalling filth and danger-fraught factory floors fill our imagination. Luckily, our imaginations are where most of these concerns remain. Youths employed in agriculture, in the overwhelming majority of cases, work in clean, wholesome, safe environments.

Something like 104 youths under twenty die of agricultural-related injuries each year. This is dreadful, deplorable, and ought to be reduced. Yet, without diminishing the importance and devastation wrought by each and every accident, we must keep this rate in perspective and balance the pursuit of diminishing returns against the loss of our agricultural base and food security. We can fool ourselves into thinking that through strict regulation we can winnow these accidents down to a tiny handful a year, but no sane person believes that we can eliminate them entirely without eliminating children in agriculture all together.

For instance, nearly double that number (around one hundred and eighty), die in bicycle accidents every year. Equally egregious, but I would be hesitant to mandate safety courses with written exams for childhood bicycling enthusiasts.

More than fifty times that number (5,470) were killed in automobile accidents in 2009. Is driving so much more "American" than working on a farm that we are willing to overlook such discrepancy?

According to the Department of Labor itself, "estimating the number of young hired farm workers is difficult because of the gaps in available data." They assume that about 152,500 individuals between the ages of 15 and 21 years work on farms. "Of this number, only a small portion– those under 16 years of age–would be subject to the Federal Ag H.O.s." I suspect there are more bureaucrats making up and managing this program than children being "protected" by it. So who exactly are we protecting and from whom?

Unintended Consequences

By making it virtually impossible to be a young employee in agriculture, we drive the further exodus of youth from an agrarian way of life. By excluding access to the kind of personalized, hands-on job training that has been a hallmark of agriculture for centuries, we perpetuate the outsourcing of agricultural lore to schools and universities; away from family, friends and neighbors where it belongs.

According to Department of Labor publicity, I am wildly overreacting because, "The Department is committed to helping youth enjoy positive and challenging work experiences–both in agricultural and nonagricultural employment–that are so important to their development and transition to adulthood." I am afraid that after reviewing these rules, I have to assume that these blandishments are less than genuine.

Apparently, youth are better off in programs such as "" (soon to be replaced by the office of Child Care). Or, barring a centrally planned activity, we’re okay with computer gaming or TV (7.5 hours per day), soul-sapping retail jobs or obesity-encouraging fast food work. More than two hundred thousand youths under twenty have diabetes. Each year, 65,700 lower limb amputations are performed on diabetics as a group, far outstripping limb loss in agricultural accidents. Frankly, if you look at the numbers, we’d save more kids by forcing them to work on "dangerous" farms and getting some exercise!

The value of youth in agriculture hardly needs description. In addition to increased physical activity levels comes an intimate understanding of where food comes from and a wholesome appreciation for nutrient-dense foods. A simultaneous gain in confidence springs through the management of soils and livestock, generating a strong realization of self-sufficiency and independence. These agrarian values are fundamental hallmarks of American culture with lasting implications.

It would take more of a cynic than I to propose that these encroaching regulations aim to erode this very base of self-sufficient, confident, independent citizens; so I’ll let it go unsaid. But I will at least say this: these regulations, designed to prevent youth from being "robbed of their childhood," are in fact robbing our country and my way of life of its children.


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