I used to love to drive my dad's tractor. As tractors go, it wasn't all that much, a little FarmAll Cub that would strain to pull a good-sized sapling stump out of the ground and even then would need a bit of pick and shovel work to loosen the roots.

But it was an ideal garden tractor, two front wheels set wide apart, adequate clearance to make cultivating sweet corn possible, and enough implements to keep a family-sized garden weed free until the rows closed in enough to require the hoe hands (my brother and me) to accomplish in three hours what that little tractor could do in 30 minutes.

Dad didn't trust me with the more meticulous tasks, laying off rows, running the one-row planter and cultivating the middles until I was old enough to see over the steering wheel. He feared, rightfully so, that my wandering mind might allow the wheels to slip a bit and the cultivators to weed out the watermelons instead of the bermudagrass. But I got to run the disk and sometimes the mowing blade. And I sometimes hooked the old wagon to the drawbar and hauled corn to the barn or firewood in from the back woods.

And Dad sometimes let me drive the tractor home when I was no more than 8 or 10 years old.

We didn't think much about how safe it was. I was just tickled to get to drive the tractor and Daddy was amused that I wanted to.

So I was a bit taken aback recently by an article out of Texas A&M about farm safety. Of the more than 100 farm children (younger than 20) who die each year and the more than 22,000 who are injured in agriculture-related accidents, farm equipment is by far the biggest threat.

Farm machinery, including tractors, the article states, accounts for 36 percent of (farm-related) deaths in youth. Thirty percent of farm machinery-related deaths occur in children less than 5 years old. That's awful.

I don't know of any group of people who treasure their children more than farm families. It's probably the close bonds they forge from shared experiences, living close to nature, learning early on about responsibility and hard work that make farm families so close-knit.

The A&M article points out that family farms “contribute to children's development of responsibility, sense of accomplishment and work ethic. And those farm kids also contribute more than a small portion to farm productivity.

Since 1975, I've worked with and learned to appreciate farm families from all over the Sunbelt. I've never encountered children with a better defined sense of who they are and what they need to do. They tackle their chores for the most part with a sense of pride. And they are the most respectful group of young people you'll find anywhere. Sir and maam come out as naturally as please and thank you.

And I've also noticed that most eagerly anticipate the opportunity to do a “man's” or a “woman's” days work. And that often means running the tractor, a combine, cotton stripper, grain wagon or farm truck.

Kids grow up fast on a farm. Most have to. There's too much to do, too little daylight to do it in.

But they're still kids and parents have to make certain that their chores and responsibilities are age appropriate.

David Smith, Texas Cooperative Extension farm safety programs specialist, says a primary focus of National Farm Safety and Health Week, Sept. 19-25, will be tractor safety.

Good idea, since a lot of lives are at stake.

According to the National Children's Center for Rural and Agricultural Health and Safety, nearly 1.5 million young people age 20 and younger lived or worked on farms in 2001. More than 660,000 were employed by but not living on farms.

“Children who are expected to perform tasks that are inappropriate for their level of experience or physical and mental maturity may find themselves in dangerous situations that can result in injury or even death,” Smith said.

In addition to tractors, hazards include other farm implements, drowning, animals and falls.

Smith offers a short list for parents to check to ensure that children are safe:

Designate a safe play area that's away from agricultural work hazards.

Assign only age-appropriate tasks for children.

Enroll children in a tractor and machinery certification course through vocational agriculture programs or Extension offices before they are allowed to drive a tractor.

Farm families, like most of us, want to protect their children without sheltering them too much. My dad would never have knowingly put me in danger. It was a simpler time and we didn't consider the danger.

But we should have. And so should every farm family with kids who are willing, eager and anxious to work and take on responsibilities that may be a bit too much for the time being.

To learn more about guidelines for children's agricultural tasks, call (800) 662-6900 or visit http://www.nagcat.org.

And be careful.