Thursday, December 8, 2011

Growing up on a farm is about to change

I try not to veer off the road and write non-Wagner Farm topics too often but I recently came across an article that got my attention. The United States Department of Labor will be enacting (1/1/12) new rules concerning youth employment on farms. Much of the impetus stems from the inherent dangers that working in agriculture present. According to the Government Accounting Office, agriculture has the "highest fatality rate among young workers at 29 per 100,000 compared to 3.6 per 100,000 across all other industries." In 2008, 456 people under 16 were killed while doing an agricultural task. (1/3 of all the injuries involved tractors.) There is no arguing that farming has dangers involved. Anecdotally it would be hard to find a person in farm country that could not name someone that has been hurt or worse while working the job. The problem with the new rules is while attempting to protect youth it is actually building a wall around an occupation that is fast disappearing in America. How do we as a country hope to produce competent farmers when we keep those most willing to learn on the sidelines? With the average age of a farmer in Illinois at 56 years old it is an issue that needs consideration.

So what about the new rules. The 97 page document that outlines the changes is mind numbing to say the least. Between the multiple HO's catagories (hazardous occupations) and the differing age requirements it is a little hard to totally digest the changes. The following represents some of the more interesting points.
* Youth under 16 will not be allowed to operate power driven equipment.
* Youth under 18 are prohibited from harvesting of fruits and vegetables.
* Machinery operators under 18 can not use electronic or communications devices while on said machinery. (So much for walkie talkies and GPS)
* No one 15 years or younger maybe employed on land not directly owned by their parent.
* Youth under 16 are not allowed to work above the height of 6 feet.
* Youth under 18 are prohibited from interactions with certain livestock without direct adult supervision.
All of these rules contain some differing level of potential "parental exemption" should the parent be the direct land owner. The biggest hitch in this is most farmers have to rent additional land and then this negates the exemption. Also, if the farm is set up in an LLC as many farms are, this too, would impact the parental exemption section.
I don't want to characterize this as an issue that I am totally against. I have a daughter and a nephew and niece that are engaged in farming and I want them to be safe. The thing is, I also want them to have a chance to decide for themselves if agriculture is something they want to go into. Having your first real chance to participate at 18 is just too late.
Being from Iowa I can tell you many tales of kids knowing that farming was in their blood from an early age. My brother Dave would be a prime example. Like many farm kids he collected toy tractors and was read books with characters like Johnny Popper and Corny Cornpicker. He followed Dad around the farm helping out where he could and learning by doing. By age 10 he was able to start his own business making custom hay bales. By 12, Dave was able to purchase a 100+ horse power John Deere 4450 and start farming his own land. Today he operates a multi-million dollar agricultural business. Would Dave had grown up to be a farmer with these new rules in place? I venture to say yes. But with out the experience and the jump start in farming he would not be in the place he is today. Agriculture isn't just a major you can take in college. To do the job, you have to devote years to it. Farming is dangerous, it always has been and will be. With only 1.5% of the United States population farmers, it is easy to see why the voices of dissent over this ruling are not being heard.