The United States Department of Labor was correct in reversing its decision to impose severe restrictions on the tasks young people may perform on family farms.
We don’t doubt that these proposals were well-intentioned and designed to protect young people from injury. But restrictions went too far, far enough, some claimed, that youngsters would no longer have been allowed to show animals at stock shows, county fairs and other venues. Claims also suggested that young people would be banned from using tools as simple as battery-powered screwdrivers. The devil, as they say, is always in the details and whether regulations would have gotten that extreme we can’t know and is now a moot point.
Fortunately, the Department of Labor reversed its decision and has vowed to work with Farm Bureau and other entities to develop reasonable safeguards for youth working on family farms.
That’s a good thing. In the 35 or so years I’ve been covering agriculture throughout the Sunbelt, one thing has always stood out. Nowhere in the United States can you find youngsters more willing to work hard than on family farms. Nowhere can you find youngsters who are more responsible than farm kids. And nowhere can you find youth who are more polite or more trustworthy.
A family farm serves as a unique teaching laboratory—offering courses in animal husbandry, soils, horticulture and economics. It’s also a good place to learn about risk and reward and the suddenness with which good things can turn sour. Farms also teach youngsters how to regroup when a crop fails or a calf dies. Such lessons are hard, but they are learned with the support structure of what is usually a close-knit farm family.
I’ve met farm kids—young adults in many cases—who had amassed a pretty good college fund by the time they graduated from high school. Some of those funds came from showing cattle, swine or other livestock at those shows. Some came from crop receipts—acreage they were granted to make their own crops and to experience the joys and frustrations that come with bountiful crops and bad failures.
Those lessons will be important when these young people take responsibility for the family farm and begin teaching the next generation of farmers and ranchers.
Farm families should also remember that agriculture can be dangerous, even for the most seasoned farmer or rancher. Animals can be unpredictable and they are large and can be deadly. Machinery demands constant focus and appropriate safety accessories—for all operators, not just young ones.
Remember, too, that a young person is often more prone to take risks than more mature adults. Consequently, it is essential that parents make certain that chores are age-appropriate and that young people gain necessary experience through close supervision and that they get ample instruction.
Unfortunately, in the 35 years that I’ve covered agriculture across the Sunbelt I’ve witnessed young people performing farm tasks for which they were too young. It’s understandable that younger children want to take part and they may beg to perform chores that their older siblings get to do. And parents may take some pride in knowing that the youngster is interested in the farm and wants to participate in the work.
But patience is also an important lesson and one that should be included in the on-farm curriculum. Keep them safe.