Editorial: Labor rules would stifle future farmers

W hen talk turns to regulations, it's all too frequently only the extremists — those braying for more or those bellowing against any — whose voices are heard.

But occasionally it's the common sense of those in the middle that advances or slows the rule-making, as was the case with the U.S. Department of Labor's reluctant but wise abandoning of plans to essentially bar children younger than 16 from farm work.

"Under pressure from farm groups and lawmakers from rural states, the Labor Department said it is withdrawing proposed rules that would ban children younger than 16 from using most power-driven farm equipment, including tractors. The rules also would prevent those younger than 18 from working in feed lots, grain silos and stockyards," The Associated Press reported last month.

Child labor groups were stunned and disappointed, the story went on to say.

It's worth reflecting on what led to the proposed rules to get a sense of the disconnect between the potential costs and benefits.

Groups pushing the rules said they would have offered "long-overdue protections to children working for hire in farm communities," the AP story noted. "Three-quarters of working children younger than 16 who died of work-related injuries in 2010 were in agriculture, according to the Child Labor Coalition."

One critic of the Labor Department's retreat from the planned farm labor rules — Zama Coursen-Neff, deputy children's rights director at Human Rights Watch — quotes government figures putting 2010 work-related fatalities for children younger than 16 at 16. Twelve of the 16 worked on farms.

The statistics vary, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention puts the number of persons under 20 years of age working on farms in 2009 at about 749,000 — about 230,000 of whom do not live on farms but were hired to work on them.

Had the Labor Department's rules been enacted, about 230,000 kids would not have been allowed to work on farms in most any capacity. While the rules didn't totally bar farmers from hiring non-relatives younger than 16, it's unlikely many would have risked running afoul the regulations by having unrelated children on the payroll.

Another branch of the federal government, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, earlier this year launched a program featuring loans, grants and training in an attempt to recruit 100,000 new farmers. The effort was spurred by too few people entering the ag industry to replace those leaving it.

There's no question agriculture is a difficult and often dangerous pursuit. But it's also an industry we cannot live without unless government can regulate a new source of food into existence. Our best bet for having enough farmers tomorrow is to interest young people in farming today.

All too often, the government creates regulations with admirable intentions toward what might be gained but inadequate consideration of what will be lost. Such was what almost occurred in this case. It's a reminder that adding layers of red tape may offer a sense of security today at a price we can't afford tomorrow.

— Lubbock Avalanche-Journal

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