Thirty senators signed a letter this week asking Labor Secretary Hilda Solis to scrap a proposed rule governing on-farm labor by minors. They say the proposed regulation limits the ability of farmers and ranchers to hire youth to work in agriculture, threatening the education and training of future farmers.
The Labor Department, which is combing through 18,000 public comments regarding the proposal, counters that kids working on farms owned by their parents would be exempt from regulation.
American Farm Bureau President Bob Stallman welcomes the Senators' appeal to Solis, saying the proposed rule change fails to take into account the modern structure of U.S. agriculture.
"There's all this talk about the proposed regulations let children and families work," Stallman said. "Well, yeah that's true as long as you don't have a partnership or a small family corporation or you're not designed to operate like most of American agriculture is."
The proposal includes prohibiting hired farm workers under the age of 16 from operating almost all power-driven equipment and performing tasks associated with the production and curing of tobacco. It also prevents children under 18 from working in grain bins, feedlots and stockyards.
The Labor Department says the prohibitions are necessary because the fatality rate for youth aged 15 to 17 who are employed on farms is four times higher than the risk experienced by their peers in other industries. It argues that the number of hired farm workers affected by the proposal is quite small at only 56,000.
Stallman calls the child labor proposal another example of misguided federal regulation of agriculture.
"There are real concerns and real costs and real threats from regulation," Stallman said. "There are some that are potentially problematic depending on what is ultimately decided, and through all of that we have to be sure that those that are proposing regulations have a clear understanding of how agriculture works as opposed to philosophically imposing new rules that aren't going to provide much in the way of cost-benefit."
As a case in point, the AFBF leader cites water quality regulations implemented by EPA that he insists are problematic for the ag sector.