CHARLESTON — Under intense public pressure, the U.S. Department of Labor has abandoned its proposal to apply child labor laws to the family farm and West Virginia Commissioner of Agriculture Gus R. Douglass said that is good news for both parents and children.
“Thanks to the outcry of rural Americans, this ill-conceived proposal has been scrapped,” said Commissioner Douglass. “This proposal showed a lack of knowledge of real life on the farm and sought to fix a problem that the agricultural community is already dealing with successfully.”
He said it’s obvious that the chance of injury working on a farm would be higher than in most workplaces where teens are employed, but he added that safety training on the farm and in 4-H and FFA programs has been very beneficial. According to a United States Department of Agriculture study, farm accidents among youth fell nearly 40 percent between 2001 and 2009, to 7.2 injuries per 1,000 farms.
Commissioner Douglass said that the labor provided by young people is critical to the success of family farms in West Virginia, which leads the nation in percentage of family-owned and -operated farms. He also noted the role farm work plays in the development of rural youth.
“Besides learning about working safely and gaining real-world job skills, farming helps our youth learn about responsibility and the satisfaction that comes from seeing the fruits of your labors. Schools teach our children lots of things, but what’s the lesson plan for a work ethic?” Commissioner Douglass asked.
Deputy Commissioner of Agriculture Janet L. Fisher added that the proposed limitations would have effectively killed a new generation of farmers.
“How would anyone ever choose a career in agriculture if they were not allowed to be exposed to it until they turned 16? Farming has traditionally been a way of life that is passed down to the next generation. We need to encourage that succession, not put roadblocks in the way of it. Otherwise, we are inviting dependency on foreign food producers,” Fisher said.
The average age of American farmers has steadily crept up over the past decades to over 55, and the Census of Agriculture to be conducted in 2012 will likely reveal an even grayer farm population. In recent years, the fastest growing group of farmers and ranchers has been those over age 65. Between 2002 and 2007 alone, the number of farmers over 65 grew by nearly 22 percent.
“The decision to withdraw this rule — including provisions to define the ‘parental exemption’ — was made in response to thousands of comments expressing concerns about the effect of the proposed rules on small, family-owned farms,” the Department of Labor said in a press release Thursday evening. “To be clear, this regulation will not be pursued for the duration of the Obama administration.”