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Monday, April 6, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Manure deep in farm child-labor debate

Growing up in Southern Idaho, I did my share of farm work.

Some of that was unpaid work on my family’s farm, and some of it was paid labor. Chores versus employment. Picking rock in the spring. Moving pipe in the summer. Bucking bales in the fall. Milking, feeding calves, cleaning barns.

Was it good for me, all that farm work? Probably, in the ways that hard work and responsibility and missing out on the fun your town friends are having is good for you. Was it absolutely fantastic for me, an utter gift from the cosmos that taught me lessons unlearnable in any other job?

Please. Farming and farmers are crucial, but we have a tendency to take it too far when we talk farming and politics. Whenever I hear someone going on about the nobility and bedrock Americana of the farm – or when I hear government-subsidized farmers complain about their unbearable government regulatory burden – I am reminded of just how much manure is involved in the whole enterprise.

In the years when our family lived on a dairy, there were times it felt like we were living in a giant cattle toilet.

Thoughts of manure came wafting to me again this week, as farm groups and the rural right took up arms against proposed new child-labor rules for farms – rules that the Obama administration withdrew Thursday under intense pressure. Opponents characterized the proposal as the latest example of anti-American, despotic overreach, and repeatedly misstated what they would have done, asserting that kids would no longer be allowed to work on their family’s farms, that kids would be “banned” from farm work, and so on.

Sarah Palin wrote a blog post titled “If I Wanted America to Fail, I’d Ban Kids from Farm Work.” Cathy McMorris Rodgers “asked” her Facebook friends: “Do you agree with new Obama Administration regulations banning kids from working on the farm?”

Social media outrage was as pungent and soupy – and factually empty – as the back corner of a cow pasture.

I started down this road because I was ready to join the chorus. This seemed like the real thing: a complaint about government overreach that involved actual government overreach.

Telling parents they can’t have their kids do chores on the family farm is outrageously, egregiously wrong. An offense against freedom and family. An example – yes, National Review – of “creeping despotism.”

Except it turns out there’s a lot of manure involved in this enterprise, too.

Before it backed off, the Department of Labor was indeed attempting to expand child labor laws to farms. These rules would have covered paid workers, not kids working for their parents. This exemption would have applied to incorporated family farms and jointly owned family farms.

If the rules had been adopted, farmers would have been prevented from hiring kids younger than 16 for many farm jobs – with exceptions for 14- and 15-year-olds. The rules would have prevented a farmer from hiring a 15-year-old – or a 13-year-old – to drive a tractor. Or to work at a grain elevator or stockyard. Or to handle explosives or poisons.

Was this government overreach? Another way to look at it is this: It would have been a very slight tightening of the leeway granted to farm employers that no other employer in the country enjoys with regard to the safety of workers ages 14, 15, 16 and 17. You can’t hire a 14-year-old to drive a forklift at your factory, even if he is your neighbor and you love America.

I drove a tractor when I was way younger than 16. I tend to think it was no big deal – not a vital function of the American farm family nor a grave threat. We drove all kinds of vehicles at a young age. Did that teach us to be hard-working? Decent? Was there something in that tractor-driving that made us who we are as a nation? I’m guessing no.

I do know this: A teenager in my town died in a tractor accident on his family farm. Another almost died when he was buried in corn silage. During the 1990s, around 70 teenagers died every year doing farm work. Most of those deaths involved younger teens and heavy equipment.

Maybe that’s just the price of freedom. I mean, it’s not really that many kids.

Should you be able to hire a 14-year-old to drive a tractor? More importantly, are we momentarily safe from the despotism that creeps constantly our way?

We had a name on the farm for this kind of talk – for baseless, unsupported nonsense. But you can’t print it in a family newspaper.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.

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