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Proposed child safety rules rankle farmers

Proposed child safety rules rankle farmers

Would ban kids under 16 from driving tractors, branding

  • Updated

Montana agriculture groups are balking at proposed federal rules that could ban children from farm work.

Children younger than 16 could be banned from running power equipment, driving tractors or branding livestock under rules proposed by the U.S. Department of Labor. Labor officials attempting to make the first updates to child labor laws since the 1970s say the injury rate for farm children is too high, with agriculture having the second highest rate of child work-related deaths. Only mining fatalities for children were worse. Tractors are particularly deadly, according to the department.

Farm groups are outraged. Allegations of urban regulators ham-handedly tackling rural issues were common as opponents commented on the proposal through last week.

"Obviously, the kids are the future of the farm industry. It's not like they go to school to learn to be ranchers or farmers," said Ariel Overstreet, of the Montana Stockgrowers Association. "They need to grow up with it and learn it first-hand."

Work on a farm is about more than labor, the Stockgrowers told federal officials. The rural community's youth development programs, including 4-H and Future Farmers of America, are built around learning the ways farms work and free market competition based on selling what you've created. In those programs, children younger than 10 are developing livestock in pursuit the ultimate reward -- a top-dollar sale.

"We are aware of it. I know our folks have addressed it on a national level. For a rural state that's focused on agriculture, it affects us in a big way," said Jill Martz, director of the 4-H Center of Youth Development at Montana State University in Bozeman. "In my mind, people should let their senators and local representative know how they feel about this."

There are loopholes to allow children to work for their parents under the new rules, but that exemption hasn't satisfied farmers concerned about children being able to work for grandparents or other relatives. Another issue is whether the exemption allows children to work if the family farm is incorporated, something farm families have done to address ownership issues, such as estate transfers.

According to federal labor statistics, children between the ages of 14 and 17 represent 7 percent of all farm workers, or more than 126,000 nationally. Most of the children working — 84 percent — are boys. Half of them are U.S. born.

Grain elevators, feed lots, stockyards and livestock auctions would be off limits to workers younger than 18. When the proposed rules were announced, Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis said children working farm jobs are some of the most vulnerable workers in America. Farm groups don't disagree about the danger of the work.

"We believe, and always have, that there needs to be safety when children are involved, not only in agriculture, but in all types of labor," said Chris Christiaens, of Montana Farmers Union. "But we don't want any of these regulations to have unintended consequences for farms and ranches. We just want them to take a closer look."

Contact Tom Lutey at

tlutey@billingsgazette.com or 657-1288

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