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Opinion: When It Comes To Kids, We're Barbarians!

Article-Opinion: When It Comes To Kids, We're Barbarians!

Anyone who knows me knows I’m not one who subscribes to the nanny-state mentality. I’ve always believed more in the people than in government.

One of the primary reasons my family is involved in agriculture is because we believe it’s a great way to raise children. A large part of why we love junior livestock and horse projects is that such activities teach kids about sportsmanship, responsibility and the importance of a strong work ethic – traits that will help them throughout life.

I have always thought FFA was a great organization for teaching kids life skills, communication skills, leadership skills and the like. I’ve had the fortune to work with scores of people who were state and national FFA officers; it’s always easy to pick them out because they just have something extra.

In fact, I’ve had several corporate recruiters tell me they love to see three things on a job candidate’s resume – being raised on a farm or ranch, and participating in judging and wrestling. Recruiters say those three activities indicate that person knows how to work hard and has the communication and analytical skills to succeed. By the way, these were not recruiters for agricultural companies, either.

So, in essence, I guess I’m a snob. I truly believe that kids raised on farms and ranches are better prepared for life’s challenges. Plus, I can’t express how much it means to our family to be able to work together. But, this week, I saw the light.

I had my consciousness raised this week when I stopped to consider the other side – the dark side – of youth being involved in production agriculture. What forced my epiphany were the updates proposed by the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) to the nation’s child-labor regulations.

The goal is more than admirable – to improve the safety of young workers employed in agriculture and related fields. In fact, Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis said, "Children employed in agriculture are some of the most vulnerable workers in America. Ensuring their welfare is a priority of the department, and this proposal is another element of our comprehensive approach."

After reading and pondering the issue, I figure that it’s about time. Lord knows agriculture has abused children in a manner that could almost be described as slave labor. In fact, in the spirit of cleansing my conscience, I will admit that I’ve even purchased children in FFA slave-auction fundraisers. My only questions regarding what the government is trying to do are: Why our own children exempted from these child-labor proposals, and why is it okay to abuse our kids on the farm, but not someone else’s?

Here are a few points and my thoughts on the DOL proposals:

  • The new rules bar children under the age of 16 from participating in the cultivation, harvesting and curing of tobacco. That makes sense; after all, anyone who would raise tobacco is inherently evil. I just wish DOL would have taken a similar hard line on the grain guys after considering the impact of high-fructose corn syrup on kids’ waistlines, or ethanol’s negative impact on the environment. You see, they didn’t go far enough.
  • DOL also proposes to bar the use of electronic devices while operating power-driven equipment. I agree wholeheartedly. I can’t bear the thought of the tragedy that might occur with a teenager answering a two-way radio call while running a grain cart at the end of a field.
  • I can also understand the grave concern regarding children under 18 being employed in the storing, marketing and transporting of raw farm products. That might sound like the government is trying to bar young folks from participating in agriculture entirely, but I know for a fact that a young man in my daughter’s sixth-grade class has been marketing farm-fresh eggs to his school teachers! One word comes to mind – inhumane.
  • And, who could argue that prohibiting young people from working at country grain elevators, near grain bins and silos, or in feedlots, stockyards, livestock exchanges and livestock auctions doesn’t makes perfect sense? It makes much more sense to have these kids working at places like McDonald’s where there’s only steaming hot coffee, boiling oil and hot grills to worry about.
In fact, I don’t think these new rules go far enough to protect the youth of America. I would advocate prison, not just fines, for any feedyard owner allowing a 17-year-old kid to run a hydraulic chute in a feedyard, for instance.

Plus, there’s the whole issue of fairness to other kids. After all, such employment, according to job recruiters, would offer these kids a huge advantage in the job market over the kids stuck in city jobs.

What particularly upsets me is the current political mood in the U.S. that would protect from dangerous agricultural employment those youth who wish to pay for their college education, but does nothing to protect kids who work on their family farm or ranch. I can only hope this is just DOL’s first step toward protecting all of America’s youth from the dangers of on-farm employment.

Taking this further, however, our children face dangers way beyond agriculture as well. This morning, I dropped off my eldest child at high school and noticed one of his friends on crutches – the result of an ankle injury playing football. Another of his friends had an arm in a cast – also maimed engaging in the barbaric sport of high school football.

Without question, there are far more injuries occurring from playing football among our youth than ever could be attributed to working in agriculture. And, these kids aren’t even being paid to endure such risk! The government needs to step forward and ban football, too.

And government is the perfect entity to regulate such activities because it’s never bound by logic or the demands of the marketplace. Any entity, like a farm or ranch that must be self-sustainable and provide benefits to its customers and employees over and beyond the costs incurred, just can’t be trusted to do what is right.

It’s a relief to know that the Obama administration stands ready to protect us from ourselves. I take great comfort in knowing that some bureaucrat without the biases of knowing our industry is staying up late at night thinking of new ways to protect us from ourselves.