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Focus on Agriculture

May 28, 2012

What Went Right on Youth Farm Labor Proposal

By Lynne Finnerty

You know the saying, “…and the crowd goes wild!” often uttered after someone shoots a basketball straight into the net? When the Labor Department announced recently that it was withdrawing its proposal to limit the types of farm work that minors could do and whose farms they could work on, the response from farm country was instantaneous. Farm families had scored the winning basket. The crowd went wild! The sense of relief was palpable.

“This is great news!” someone commented on the American Farm Bureau Federation’s page on Facebook. “Many farms, including our own, are family run and it should be the decision of the parents of the children working on the farm whether they are old enough to work. We are thankful for this decision as I'm sure many are!”

“Grassroots efforts work!” said another.

The Labor Department’s proposal would have barred anyone under 16 years old from using power-driven equipment, in addition to other restrictions, and limited the parental exemption to farms that are wholly owned by a parent. After Farm Bureau and others pointed out that the proposed rule could make it illegal for young people to use even a battery-powered screwdriver and did not take into account the way that many farms are organized nowadays, with ownership shared by several family members, the Obama administration withdrew it. DOL said the decision was made in response to thousands of comments expressing concerns about the effect of the proposal on small, family-owned farms.

It’s tempting to just sit back and relish this victory. But it’s important to look at what really worked, just as a winning team will review video of the game.

The first thing that worked was that all of agriculture used the same playbook. The administration didn’t get conflicting messages from different farm groups or agricultural sectors. Everyone came together behind one rallying cry: the child labor rule had to go!

Second, farmers and ranchers never gave up.

Even after submitting more than 10,000 comments on the proposed rule and after the comment period ended, farmers and ranchers kept expressing their opposition on social media websites, in newspaper and magazine articles and even on Capitol Hill. The din from farm country was relentless, much like the noise one might hear at a basketball game when the fans are letting their team know that they’re behind them all the way.

Finally, farmers told their personal stories about how the proposal would affect their farms and their families. Some harked back to when they were young and learned important life lessons by doing farm work – lessons that helped them become better farmers and responsible adults, lessons that they want to impart to their own children. Even if someone didn’t grow up on a farm, he could probably relate to that. Farmers talked about shared values and made a connection with the public.

Lynne Finnerty is the editor of FBNews, the official newspaper of the American Farm Bureau Federation.