LANSING — Farm families in Michigan and across the nation breathed a collective sigh of relief late Thursday as word began to spread that the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) had finally withdrawn a rule proposed last September that would have dramatically limited young people's ability to work on their own family farms.
The DOL statement late Thursday stated "The decision to withdraw this rule—including provisions to define the 'parental exemption'—was made in response to thousands of comments expressing concerns about the effect of the proposed rules on small family-owned farms."
Michigan farmers started making their voices heard from the start, submitting hundreds of comments opposing the rule just in the last few months of 2011.
"This is a tribute to the farmers all over the country who spoke up," said Ryan Findlay, national legislative counsel for Michigan Farm Bureau (MFB). "More than 500 Michigan farmers submitted comments on the rule directly, and many more contacted their members of congress, challenged administration officials on the rule, spoke out through online forums and aired their concerns in local papers."
Originally couched as a move to "strengthen the safety requirements for young workers employed in agriculture and related fields," the proposed changes would have barred youth from milking cows, feeding cattle, stacking hay bales higher than 6 feet, picking fruit from ladders more than 6 feet tall, operating basic farm equipment or raising 4-H animals. It also would have essentially ended a rural tradition cherished for generations—the passing down of a vital work ethic from one generation to the next and the side-by-side work of family members from multiple generations. As originally proposed, the regulations would have prohibited grandchildren from working on their grandparents' farm or a child from working on a farm co-owned by his or her father and uncle.
"Farmers understand the need for common sense regulation, but making it illegal for a 15-year-old to carry a flashlight or use an electric screwdriver on a farm was going too far," Findlay said. "Farm Bureau believes in agriculture and the work ethic that youth can learn on a farm. We believe this is the common sentiment across Michigan and across the United States and we're pleased the DOL finally realized it too."
Provisions of the rule would have also effectively dismantled the existing system of agricultural education that takes place through programs like 4-H and FFA, transferring those responsibilities to a public school system poorly equipped to take them on.
"Youth learn a work ethic on the farm and gain an appreciation that, from work, comes rewards," said Craig Anderson, MFB's farm labor specialist. "They learn how things operate and when they're ready to begin operating equipment.
"Through 4-H, FFA, vocational agricultural programs and the many farm organizations, Michigan agriculture already provides farm youth with academic and safety training to meet the increasing technical needs of modern agriculture."
The DOL itself hit the pause button on part of the rule in February, when it announced it would revisit the "parental exemption" provision, which would have restricted permissible youth employees to only the immediate children of the farm owner.
Then in March, a contingent of Midwestern congressmen launched a direct attack on the rule, introducing legislation that would have prevented DOL Secretary Hilda Solis from finalizing or enforcing the proposed child labor regulations.
"Michigan Farm Bureau appreciates the work of congressmen Upton, Huizenga, Benishek, Walberg, Miller and Camp in communicating agriculture's concern to the labor department," Findlay said.
Michigan Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-Lansing), chair of the senate agriculture committee, asked DOL to reexamine the proposed rule, saying at the time she was "very concerned that they do not understand how a family farm works."
The strident opposition of MFB members embodies two of the organization's key organizational priorities for 2012—regulatory reform and agricultural workforce development.