Nebraska farmers worry tighter youth labor rules will keep kids out of agriculture

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Story and video by Teresa Lostroh, NewsNetNebraska

Rod Hollman has been doing farm work for more than five decades.

He started milking cows before he was 10. He was plowing fields by 12.

Hollman is 63 now and looking to retire in about five years and hand down his family-run soybean, corn, hay and cattle operation near Martell, a tiny town southwest of Lincoln.

Hollman’s 14-year-old grandson is interested in taking over. He mows, rakes and hauls hay. He fixes fence, drives the ATV, sorts cattle and prepares them for sale.

“If they don’t learn when they’re young, they don’t learn the proper work ethics, they don’t learn the proper ways things should be done,” Hollman said. “If you wait until you’re an adult, your knowledge is so limited, you don’t have the common sense to do things the right way.”

Hollman worries a U.S. Department of Labor proposal to keep young workers away from tractors, machinery and livestock “will ruin the industry.” If young people have to wait until they’re 16 – or 18 in some cases – to do certain kinds of work, as the proposed regulations dictate, they won’t bother with agriculture at all, Hollman said. They’ll find jobs that are easier, more lucrative and more stable away from the farm.

The labor department has said it wants to bring parity to youth labor laws within and outside of agriculture and ensure the safety of at-risk workers.

“Children employed in agriculture are some of the most vulnerable workers in America,” Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis said in a statement. “Ensuring their welfare is a priority of the department, and this proposal is another element of our comprehensive approach.”

To farmers and ag advocacy groups, though, the proposal is a direct attack on their livelihood, which relies on getting youngsters involved early.

The 50-page regulation, unveiled in September, was so controversial the Department of Labor opted to keep public comments open until Dec. 1 – a month longer than planned. Almost 10,300 people weighed in, many of them farmers and ranchers telling suit-and-tie officials to butt out of agriculture.

The new rules would prohibit youth under 16 from:

  • driving tractors or operating, starting, stopping or feeding power equipment (hay mowers, balers, grain combines, etc.) unless they had taken a semester’s worth of safety classes and were enrolled in continuing education
  • working in the pens of mature male livestock or female livestock with newborns
  • branding, castrating, dehorning, vaccinating animals
  • herding livestock in pens
  • working at heights above 6 feet. The current allowable height is 20 feet.
  • working inside a grain storage building or manure pit

Another change would make it illegal for anyone younger than 18 to work outside of the office at livestock auctions, grain elevators (where farmers store and sell grain) and feedlots.

“The best way to learn is to have hands-on experience,” said Jordan Dux, national affairs coordinator for the Nebraska Farm Bureau. “If you take that away, you take away that ability for that young person to learn to work with an animal. On a crop farm, you look at a child being able to operate a tractor. (The proposal) takes away that getting-your-hands-dirty type of learning.

“It really offends an awful lot of farmers,” Dux said. “They see this as large slap in the face from the federal government, telling them they don’t now what’s safe.”

And farm kids don’t like it either.

“I’m 16 years old, and I’ve been doing farm work my whole life,” said Bailey Wink, who works on a farm outside of Crete. “I like to work with animals, being outdoors and just helping the world.”

He said his job has taught him responsibility and instilled in him a work ethic he wouldn’t have gotten working in town. The labor department’s proposal, Bailey said, is “ridiculous.”

By the numbers

An estimated 15,012 people under the age of 20 were injured on U.S. farms in 2009, according to the National Children’s Center for Rural and Agricultural Health and Safety. The estimates do not distinguish between recreational and work-related injuries.

Two-thirds of the victims lived on the farms where they were injured. Children working for their parents are exempt from ag labor regulations, which means that even if there had been restrictions in place similar to the ones being proposed, the majority of the victims wouldn’t have been subject to them anyway.

The Department of Labor says that exemption will stick except when the farms, ranches, feedlots, etc. are set up as a corporation – a common practice among family members who share land and equipment.

The department says corporations are more likely to be motivated by profits, not safety.

According to the 2007 agricultural census – the most recent available – 3,394 Nebraska farms were corporations run by families.

Individuals or relatives not working as a corporation operated 39,848 others.

“When you look at the way ag is organized, to say the aunt, uncle or grandfather would not have the best interest at heart” is offensive, Dux said.

Safety experts sympathize with concerned farmers, but they say the proposal won’t bring that many changes for agriculture – or safety.

“They certainly have a point in making sure the kids learn to do farm work and can take over the farm and learn the skills needed,” said Risto Rautiainen, an associate professor in the Department of Environmental, Agricultural and Occupational Health at the University of Nebraska Medical Center.

“But the current climate is such that if there’s any new regulations coming, it sort of creates all sorts of anxiety,” he said. “I don’t see this as something to be too worried about,” Rautiainen said, because kids aren’t being banished entirely from the farm.

They’re being barred from some of agriculture’s most-dangerous tasks; the majority of deaths involve tractors and other machinery.

“I think (the new rules) might provide a little bit more protection for the kids,” Rautiainen said.

The proposal’s supporters assert it will bring more than “a little bit” of protection. “These injuries and fatalities are preventable by removing children from such dangerous jobs,” wrote Peter Dooley, who runs Michigan consulting firm LaborSafe, in a public comment.

It’s difficult to determine how many young people are injured or killed doing farm work each year in Nebraska specifically because no one regularly tracks such incidents.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics combines agriculture, forestry, commercial fishing, hunting and trapping in one category and doesn’t include victims’ ages.

The Great Plains Center for Agricultural Health, based in Iowa, tallies ag-related injuries and fatalities by combing news media, but the organization cautions its numbers aren’t exhaustive.

The center’s list shows 125 injuries and fatalities on Nebraska farms between 2007 and October 2011. An age is available for 92 of the cases; only seven involved minors doing farm labor.

“The number of youth killed in these ways is relatively low and probably wouldn’t be impacted by the changes,” said Murray Madsen, the Great Plains Center’s former associate director. Madsen works as an ag safety consultant in Minnesota.

“I’m not sure how much (the injury rate) would actually be reduced by this incremental change in the laws, either,” he said.

Regardless, safety advocates and department officials say the rules, which haven’t been updated in 40 years, need a facelift.

“These changes are long overdue,” Dooley wrote. “Challenges that young workers are denied the opportunity to work in agriculture are negated by the facts that young workers can still be involved in agriculture on the family farm, 4-H clubs and once they turn 16.”

On the farm

West of Crete, 16-year-old Bailey and 17-year-old Matt Scholz help on Bill Lorenz’s farm.

Matt has been working there since he was 14; Bailey since he was 15. But both teens started doing farm work elsewhere long before that.

“I believe with farm work a person can build a lot of character,” said Matt, who started helping on his grandparents’ farm when he was 8.

Bailey, who grew up caring for sheep and cattle on his acreage, said he eventually wants to pursue a career in agriculture. Matt does, too.

Neither teen has been injured on the job.

“Most companies are going to have it so you are safe working,” Bailey said. “And that’s what we do here.”

Hollman, the farmer from Martell, said he won’t be satisfied until the rules have been defeated.

He said if the proposal is enacted any time soon, he’d have to cut back on cattle and hay production because his grandson couldn’t help.

“There are some things that children around here just need to be able to do,” he said. “If they’re going to outlaw something that could potentially cause harm, I would say look at sports, the injury rate there is pretty high.”

Labor officials, he said, “just don’t have their heads on straight.”

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