More than 3.5 million children aged 14 and under received medical treatment last year for sports injuries. From 1982 until 2002, 256 young people were killed in organized sports, including, believe it or not, 21 fatalities from cheerleading. Around 3,000 young people between the ages of 15 and 19 are killed each year in auto accidents. All of which, if you are a Washington bureaucrat, means that something has to be done about kids working on farms.
A new rule advanced by the Department of Labor would end the exemptions that allow farm kids under 16 to have 4-H or FFA projects that include operating machinery and working with animals. Not only that, the department is moving to tighten regulations to forbid farm kids from working on their grandparents’ farm, a farm owned by their aunt or uncle or a family farm organized as a corporation.
Farm safety is a concern, and farming is, by nature, a dangerous occupation. However, any death in a farming accident is one too many. From 1998 until 2009, the rate of farm accidents involving young people dropped by 48%. That statistic alone would argue against the need for drastic changes in the regulations dealing with kids who work on their family farms.
“60 Minutes” did an expose; Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis is concerned; and regulations governing kids and farming haven’t been changed since 1970. The year 1970 doesn’t seem like that long ago and was hardly the dark ages of the industrial revolution, but never mind. Something has to be done! The date of the last change in the regulations brings back some memories for me. I spent the summer of 1970, when I was 13, scooping corn and walking beans. I spent some of my time working on my father’s farm, which would be legal under the proposed rule, but much of the rest of the summer was spent working for my grandfather, which is verboten under the Obama administration’s plan.
Let’s face it, I was exploited for most of that summer, and every summer until I turned 16. Where was Secretary Solis when I needed her? Solis has said she refuses to “stand by while children are robbed of their youth!” Exactly!
Of course, there is another side to the story, but it is hard to make the argument for the virtues of work. I guess it is accepted by everyone that summer should be a time for exploring, for being a kid, for camp and family vacations and for baseball. In a recent piece in a Kansas law journal, the authors make the case for stricter regulations protecting kids from the life my brothers and I lived. My favorite quote from the piece made the argument that we’ve advanced beyond the hidebound belief that labor is honorable, commendable and a thing of value: “Even today, many Americans believe in the value of labor intensive work, and that positive work experience can foster individual development, and a sense of responsibility.”
Well, yes, even today. Looking back on those days, I credit much of what I have achieved to that forced discipline, to the effort my father and grandfather spent in training me. I learned that in order to be treated like a man, I had to do a man’s work. I was expected to keep up, to finish the job, and whining was not tolerated. I’m thankful that technology has lessened the need for that kind of work, but that thankfulness doesn’t change the fact that I benefitted from the lessons I learned with a hoe in my hand. My grandchildren now help me do the same kind of jobs in our greenhouse business, and they are, I hope, learning the same lessons I learned.
(Blake Hurst, of Westboro, Mo., is the president of Missouri Farm Bureau.)