Thursday, April 19, 2012

New Agriculture Labor Rules Just More Regulation Nation

From financial services to farming, plumbing to computer repair, business owners say new regulations have them so bogged down in compliance that it is hindering their ability to plan and expand for the coming years.

Even though President Obama recently acknowledged the need to minimize regulations, the number appears to be growing. Obama administration regulations on new business rose to 3,573 final rules in 2010, up from 3,503 in 2009 -- the equivalent of about 10 per week.

Now a report out of Omaha, Nebraska, says that Farmers and Ranchers are concerned about the new labor rules coming out of the United States Labor Department.

The proposed rules would prohibit most children under age 16 from driving tractors, using power equipment, working with livestock in certain circumstances, and doing work at heights over 6 feet. 

So when you hear about 15-year-old Taylor Muller and her three younger brothers who have always done what they could to help their family on their farm, whether it's tending to cows or driving a tractor or ATV - you know that they are concerned about the new U.S. Labor Department rules will effect their family and lifestyle.

"Most kids my age don't even have jobs," said Taylor, who assists her father at one Southwest Oklahoma farm and her grandparents at another. "We already know what hard work is."

Many other young kids won't be allowed to do those kinds of chores if the U.S. Labor Department approves new rules on children working in agriculture.

While the Mullers would likely be exempt because it's a family business, the proposed rules would prohibit most children under age 16 from doing most of the things that the Muller kids take for granted as part of life.

Federal officials say the rules are needed because farming is one of the nation's most dangerous occupations, but many farmers say children learn important life lessons and might develop an interest in agriculture by working on farms or ranches.

Muller's dad, Matt, says he worries about what the new rules might mean for the future of farming.

"It's very disheartening to me," he said. "Farming is not just a business. It's a way of life."

Michael Hancock, the assistant administrator for policy at the Labor Department's Wage and Hour Division, said the rules covering child farm workers haven't been updated in more than 40 years and that changes are needed to address the dangers of working with tractors and other large farm machines.

"Farming," he said, "is the single-most hazardous occupation, as measured by fatalities, for children."

Nearly 29 out of every 100,000 farm workers in the U.S. die on the job, according to the National Safety Council. Among workers ages 15 to 24, the rate is about 21 deaths per 100,000 workers. Statistics for workers younger than 15 aren't available because there isn't enough data on them.

Hancock compared the proposed rules, which mostly apply to farm employees between the ages of 12 and 16, to those prohibiting a teenager from operating a meat slicer in a restaurant or a cardboard compactor in a grocery store.

"There's any number of things kids can do on a farm that will be totally unaffected by these regulations," Hancock said. For instance, he said, they can still detassle corn, haul hay and feed cattle.

Hancock also said he supports the proposed exemptions in the rules for children working on their parents' farms or on farms where a parent is a main operator.

"If the parents are responsible for what goes on on that farm, they're uniquely able to judge those risks," Hancock said.

Labor officials insist the rules are necessary because farming is dangerous.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack recently stated that the changes are warranted because statistics show that while only four percent of working youth are in the agriculture sector, 40 percent of fatalities of working kids are associated with machines, equipment, or facilities related to agriculture.

Nebraska farmer Shane Meyer worries those exemptions won't cover someone like him because the farm with about 2,500 hogs that he runs near Beatrice, Neb., is owned by someone else.

The rules may not be much of a problem for Meyer's boys, who do yard work and help care for the hogs, because one is already 16 and the other will turn 16 next year, but they would make it hard for him to hire any of his employees' or neighbors' kids.

"It's not the farms that are going to suffer. It's the kids," he said.

Agricultural groups say the parental exemption raises a lot of questions because many farms or ranches today are technically owned by limited liability corporations or other entities even if they are run by families. They say the proposed rules simply aren't clear about how they would apply to various ownership structures.

Matt Muller, who grows wheat and cotton on about 2,000 acres near Altus, Okla., said young cousins and nephews have helped out on his farm, but that might not be possible under the new rules. Plus, he wouldn't be able to hire neighbor kids.

He also wonders how his children would be affected if he and his wife switched the ownership to a limited liability corporation.

A fourth-generation farmer with four children under age 16, Muller said he hopes they will follow him into the business but worries they won't if they don't get interested in farming early. He grew up driving tractors and sweeping out grain bins and said it's a lifestyle he doesn't think labor officials understand.

"They may have legitimate safety concerns, but I don't think they've spent much time on a farm," he said.

For instance, the proposed rules would prohibit the use of any sort of electronic or communication device while operating a tractor, but it's common practice to use two-way radios or cellphones to communicate between tractors, trucks and combines in the field. And many modern tractors come equipped with GPS systems and other electronics that teens might not be able to use.

The National Pork Producers Council, Farm Bureau chapters in several states and other major agriculture groups have organized to oppose the proposed rules. Officials in agricultural states also have questioned the wisdom of the changes.

Iowa Cattlemen chief executive Matt Deppe said he believes the new rules would make it harder for young people to get the hands-on experience they need to become interested in agriculture.

"I see them as creating a barrier for young people interested in the business," said Deppe, who grew up on a farm and learned to drive a tractor at age 10.

Oklahoma Farm Bureau President Mike Spradling, who raises pecans near Sand Springs for over 40 years, said he didn't think the rules were needed because "farmers and ranchers weren't likely to assign teenagers to the most dangerous jobs."

"Accidents can happen on farms, but they can also happen in every area of life, said Spradling.

"We are surrounded day to day with certain risks, and the sooner we start to deal with those risks the better the odds are of being successful," Spradling said. "I think that's the one thing young people in the agriculture culture get to learn at a very young age. It prepares young men and women for life's challenges much earlier."

The agriculture community has a responsibility to provide a safe environment for workers of all ages and has done so, Spradling said. Farm work instills responsibility and compassion in young people and provides an educational lab to learn sciences such as zoology and horticulture, he said.

"There's no other place in the world they can achieve those things. The lessons learned here are more than what can be learned in a textbook," Spradling said.

Jack Staats, supervisor of agricultural education for Oklahoma, said he is proud of the opportunities public school agricultural education programs provide for students to use what they learn in the classroom in real-world, supervised situations.

He said he does not want the regulations to affect the training of young farm workers by taking away on-farm learning opportunities.

"I respect the thought process to make it safer, but I question who is going to train these young people and nourish their love of agriculture if they're not allowed to participate and be a part of it," Staats said. "There's a vast number of farms anymore that have to depend on neighbor kids, nephews and nieces, and if we limit them to where they can't do anything until they're 16 years of age, that really bothers me."

Reighly Blakley, 15, is part of the agricultural education at program at Oologah-Talala High School. As part of the program, the sophomore tours the state to speak about Oklahoma agriculture, shows cattle and hogs and sells the vegetables she raises at farmers markets in Tulsa and Owasso. In October, Blakley was named one of four national finalists for the vegetable production award at the National FFA Convention.

Blakley, her siblings and her cousins grew up helping in the family's plant nursery and on the ranch where they raise cattle, hogs and sheep.

"I think it's helped me with major leadership skills and responsibility because I can't just decide one day I don't want to get up and feed my cattle. They have to be fed. That responsibility's impacted my life in a major way," Blakley said. "I think it will help me when I get older and get a job. I know I can't just decide 'I don't want to go to work today.'"

Blakley, who wants to be an agricultural lawyer when she grows up, does not think the proposed regulation changes that she knows of are necessary.

She has worked alongside her father stacking hay and herding cattle on horseback since she was young, both jobs that the proposed regulations could prohibit some young workers from doing. She has also been inside a pen with a bull, or with a cow and her calf, and says that young people who have grown up on a ranch know it is necessary to be careful in these situations and should not be banned from performing them.

Blakley, who was given her first bottle-calf when she was 4 years old, now has around 40 cattle in her name and shows steers and heifers nearly every weekend. She loves having the opportunity to watch an animal grow from birth to adulthood, she said.

"Not every kid gets to do this," Blakley said. "I feel privileged to be part of a family that has been in the farming and ranching business for a long time."

The Labor Department can only regulate employer-employee relationships, so Michael Hancock said the proposed rules shouldn't affect 4-H, Future Farmers of America or other educational programs. And, they may not keep children from helping on their grandparents' or uncle's farms if they aren't paid.

"I think there is a clear path forward for kids who want to pursue agriculture as a career," Hancock said.

Glorine Wilson of Kellyville was raised on a cattle ranch. And she has a message for the Labor Department: "Give the farmer a break. If it wasn’t for the farmer and the rancher, Americans wouldn’t eat."

No matter what government employee Hancock says, Wilson and others contend the proposed rules could keep kids from learning about the hard work and responsibility necessary to work on a farm.

Help Might Be Coming!

This week during The Ag Minute, House Committee on Agriculture Chairman Frank Lucas discussed the latest regulatory attack on family farms and rural America by the Obama administration.

The fact that the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) has proposed a regulation that would make it difficult, if not impossible, for young people to access comprehensive on-farm education and employment opportunities has not gone unnoticed in Congress as complaints mount.

Chairman Frank Lucas is a co-sponsor of H.R. 4157, the Preserving America's Family Farms Act, which was introduced by Rep. Tom Latham (R-IA).

The bill blocks DOL from implementing any regulation that would prohibit youth from working on family owned farms.

During The Ag Minute, Chairman Frank Lucas said, "During our farm bill field hearings, agricultural producers continue to tell us their concerns about the Department of Labor’s proposal to regulate youth working on farms. These farmers are worried about what it could mean for the future of their family farms. They're worried about ensuring the next generation gains the necessary hands-on experience to keep American agriculture moving forward.

"With all the top-down, stifling regulations coming out of the Obama administration, farmers are justified in their concerns. The Labor Department has said they will re-propose one part of the regulation, but that's still not going to solve the other burdens this regulation will bring to bear that could ultimately prevent young people from working on farms.

"It’s no surprise the Obama administration has created a regulation that’s completely out-of-touch with the values and reality of rural America. I appreciate the work of the producer organizations who are leading the charge to educate the administration, Congress and the public about the serious consequences of this proposal.

"I applaud the efforts of all my colleagues, both in the House and Senate, who continue to shine the light on this senseless regulation that was clearly crafted in the dark. Now it’s up to the Department of Labor to demonstrate some common-sense and drop it."

Sam Johnston owns Farmers Feed in Sapulpa. Sam used to run a cattle farm, "My kids got on a tractor about the same time a lot of kids began riding a tricycle. They had chores to do and at a very young age they learned to drive a tractor. And that's the way it should be."

What Sam and others have a problem with these days is extremely basic and not hard to understand. The problem is that instead of remaining a free society that respects the rights and judgement of its people, we are becoming more and more a Regulation Nation.

Why, because we have a Federal Government that feels it is somehow responsible for ever human act that American citizens do in their daily lives. 

Sam wishes the Federal Labor officials would "mind their own business." And yes, many many Americans, Farms and others, agree with him.

Story by Tom Correa

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