Farmers and ranchers oppose stricter child-labor rules

Monday , February 13, 2012 - 10:00 AM

Jerry Daniel Reed

Richard Thorpe worries the pathway he took to the rural ranching life he enjoys today may be blocked for kids who grow up in town.

Thorpe, owner of the Mesa TY Ranch east of Winters, Texas, strongly opposes a proposed U.S. Labor Department rule that would bar young teenagers from working on farms and ranches where they're not related to the owner-operator.

Earlier this month the U.S. Department of Labor softened its proposed rule change by broadening the so-called family exemption to rules applying to younger teens working in agriculture.

That was not enough to silence a chorus of critics in the agriculture sector who want the proposal scrapped entirely.

Under current rules, Thorpe said, "kids not fortunate enough to grow up on a farm or ranch gain valuable experience working on one."

If the proposed rules had been in effect when he was a boy, Thorpe said, he might never have acquired a yen for ranching and the rural lifestyle.

Although a town boy, he got the chance to work on a ranch in San Saba County, Texas, picking up stones and tossing them off a ranch road. In the next few years, he moved on to other tasks, including operating a tractor to plow when he was 15.

Although a broadening of the family kinship ties would exempt a teen from the proposed rules, that concession seems too minor to satisfy the agriculture community.



"I don't know of any group from a rural area that's supporting this rule," said Steve Pringle, legislative director for the Texas Farm Bureau.

Dennis Braden, general manager of the historic Swenson Ranch in Stamford, Texas, said it would force him to make some hard decisions.

Traditionally the sons of Swenson cowboys have worked alongside their dads as the teens' schedules permitted, he said. And an overwhelming majority of them grow up to be cowboys on the Swenson or another ranch.

Swenson's workers live on the ranch, but the sons of these cowboys wouldn't qualify for an exemption under the proposal because they're not related to management or ownership.

The agricultural industry stands to lose a lot if the proposed rule change goes through, he said.

Ranch work is a trade "that takes years to develop," he said.

"If this law goes through, these (ranch) youngsters will be in the house, playing their Nintendo just like city kids," he predicted.

Agriculture producers and industry officials emphasized that farm and ranch youths draw on seasoned expertise for safety training -- FFA and 4-H organizations and extension services.

Several voiced skepticism about a major reason advanced for tightening safety regulations for teens working in agriculture: the hazardous nature of some tasks.

According to a study by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, the fatality rate for farm workers 15 to 17 years old is four times higher than in nonfarm industries.

The study found that 74 percent of children under 15 who were killed on the job from 2003 to 2010 were employed in agriculture.

Dave Edmiston, director for Farm Bureau District 7, said people who earn their living from the land "practice safety every day. Each occupation has its own hazards."

Critics of the proposed changes fret about possibilities such as younger teens being curtailed in their opportunities to exhibit animals in stock shows, or even such routine tasks as cutting grass.

In town, youths could make money operating a riding lawn mower, Edmiston said, but a youth unrelated to a farm or ranch owner-operator might be forbidden to do that same job the same way in the country.

(Jerry Daniel Reed is a correspondent for the Abilene Reporter-News in Abilene, Texas. Contact him at reedandj@msn.com.)

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