Industry Insights: Lessons from Labor

A common thread among those involved in agriculture is the experiences they had growing up and working on the farm. For most, it’s a time in their life when they learn not only the fundamentals of food production, but also the work ethic and responsibility that influence them throughout their lives.

So when the U.S. Department of Labor’s (DOL) Wage and Hour Division proposed revisions that would have changed the face of the family farm last September, it prompted a huge response from the agricultural community. According to Agri-Pulse coverage of the issue, more than 70 agricultural organizations submitted comments in opposition to the changes. The National Farmers Union said parts of the rules needed revision. The American Farm Bureau Federation called the rules an “over-reach” and a threat to the integrity of family farms.

From a review of the proposed rules and DOL news release, it’s not hard to see where these groups would get that impression. The regulations would have applied to all youth under the age of 16 working in agriculture, and would have made many, if not most, tasks on the farm off-limits for youth not qualifying for a narrow parental exemption. 

Relevant to the hog industry, the new rules would have banned youth from “engaging, or assisting, in animal husbandry practices” – specifically outlining breeding, castration, vaccination and other practices  integral to our industry. More broadly, it would also ban contact with animals in situations where behavior could be unpredictable. Call me crazy, but I’m pretty sure I was always taught to regard livestock as unpredictable, no matter the setting. These rules would have also prohibited youth under age 16 from working in or around manure pits, operating most machinery and working in “extreme temperatures.”

Perhaps what was most unsettling to me is that these restrictions could have had a serious effect on the ability of youth to show livestock or work around animals in 4-H projects or FFA Supervised Agricultural Experiences (SAEs).  In a time when the Obama Agriculture Department, led by Secretary Tom Vilsack, is making its case for more support for beginning farmers and agriculturists, it struck me as ironic that the Labor Department was proposing regulations that would have prevented the next generation from gaining the experiences needed to help them develop necessary skills and a passion for farming.

Thankfully, the Department of Labor announced in an April news release that, after thousands of comments received and pressure from members of Congress, it would withdraw the regulations and assured that they “would not be pursued for the duration of the Obama administration.”

 That probably has many of you wondering why I’m writing about this issue after it seems to have been resolved, but there are some important takeaways. While I don’t believe regulation is the key to improving farm safety, it’s likely someone in Washington might, and that means this issue probably isn’t over.

Also, not to be missed in the aftermath of these rules is the influence agriculture has when it stands united behind an issue. In part due to the nature of the regulations, the response from agriculture on this issue was heard loud and clear in Washington. The agriculture child labor rules represent merely one challenge facing agriculture in our nation’s capital. What if agriculture showed that kind of grassroots activism more often? What more can we do to tell our story to regulators and lawmakers alike?

At the end of the day, I’m pleased with how the child labor in agriculture issue sorted itself out. However, it was an important reminder that we need to be vigilant in telling our industry’s story. If not, we risk the chance that the next generation won’t have the same opportunities we have all been fortunate to have.

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