Working on the farm is a tradition for farm families. I picked rocks with my parents and the rest of my family from as early as I can remember. When we were very young, we used to sit on the back of the wagon when we got tired, kicking the wagon wheels when no one was looking.
As I got older, I graduated to driver. That meant that I got to drive the tractor and wagon forward and then hop off and pick with everyone else until it was time to pull forward again. My favorite part, though, was switching all the tractors between fields, when we could get the tractors up to top gear and drive full speed (not all that very fast in an old tractor) down the gravel roads. It was a fun bit of freedom, but it was important work. Without our help, my dad would have spent hours shuttling our wagons and tractors between fields by himself.
My parents and uncle always paid us for our work on the farm, and we worked hard. We started each day before 7 am and worked alongside the adults. When it came time to go to college, each of us had a small nest egg that helped us pay for some of our computers, books, room, and tuition. And today, we are all hardworking adults. Between the four of us, my sisters and I own our own businesses, working as doctors, lawyers, and marketing professionals, while managing growing families. Several of us are employed in agri-business. I work with farmers in my law practice. And my parents and the rest of us run a family farm winery, Four Daughters Vineyard and Winery. We work those same long hours, actually getting our hands dirty in the fields, and we are thankful for the strong ethics our farming background instilled in us.
Which brings me to my point…we were able to learn those skills because regulations allowed farm kids to work on their family’s farms for pay. Farm labor laws currently exempt young farm workers from Department of Labor standards if they’re working on their own family’s farm. A proposed change in that law would prohibit farm kids under 16 from operating most machinery or working with livestock. The stated goal is to protect kids from dangerous conditions on the farm, but the change would only affect hired farm workers. In effect, farm families would be prohibited from paying teens under age 16 for their work on the farm…or those paid farm kids would be prohibited from assisting with many jobs they’ve historically done. This USA Today article describes some of the changes.
Some legislators who grew up on farms understand that kids learn great work ethics and earn good money working on their family farms. Legislation is underway calling on the DOL to withdraw its proposal.
Farm families should watch this legislation and the proposed changes closely. If it passes, it could mean serious changes in the way that families conduct their farm business.