January 09, 2012

On-Farm Learning Needs Protecting

Guest column submitted by U.S. Senator Mike Crapo

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service (ERS), the average age of principal farm operators in 2007 was 57 years, compared with an average of 50 years in 1978.  ERS found that a decline in the number of young farmers and an increase in the number of aging farmers seem to be pushing this age trend.  High startup costs and limited land availability make it difficult for many young farmers to get their start.  With a growing U.S. population-projected at more than 312 million-and an estimated nearly one billion people chronically hungry worldwide, we must encourage, not discourage, the next generation of farmers and ranchers by ensuring access to the training necessary to overcome the considerable startup challenges.

Unfortunately, on September 2, 2011, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) proposed a rule that sends the wrong message to young people who want to pursue farming and ranching, by limiting their ability to work on farms, even those owned by their immediate family.  Many producers get their start at young ages working on family farms.  They experience first-hand the rewards of hard work, the production methods that work best and the importance of farm safety measures.  Obstructing this learning opportunity would negatively impact the structure of many education programs, farms, ranches and other agricultural businesses, and many throughout the agricultural community are understandably concerned.  Restriction of job opportunities also limits students' ability to become financially responsible and viable and their ability to establish a college savings fund, which influences their access to further their education.

Due to DOL conducting a comment period on the proposed rule during fall harvest, among the busiest times for producers, I joined a bipartisan group of 32 Senators, including Idaho Senator Jim Risch, in requesting a 60-day extension of the comment periodso thatthose most impacted by the changes would have the opportunity to voice their opinions.  DOL extended the comment period 30-days. 

Review of the regulation confirmed concerns.  Thus, I joined a bipartisan group of 30 Senators, including Senator Jim Risch and led by Senators Jerry Moran (R-Kansas) and Ben Nelson (D-Nebraska), in detailing specific concerns with the rule and requesting that DOL withdraw its proposed rule.  Some of the concerns raised are as follows:

  • Youth-including nieces, nephews or grandchildren-would be further restricted in what jobs they could do on the family farm.
  • The rule unnecessarily prohibits extension and vocational training and certification programs, such as FFA and 4-H, which provide quality education and training in rural communities across the U.S., while providing no data to substantiate this limitation.
  • The proposal declares operation of all classifications of tractors as hazardous, but provides no justification that changing the current regulation would lead to any positive impact on safety.
  • The rule includes an unnecessary prevention of youth from working with nearly all types of farm animals without information that demonstrates the changes will improve youth farm safety.     

Ensuring farm safety and that young people are treated fairly in any work setting is essential.  However, restricting youth from working on family farms without demonstrating that the changes would significantly improve youth safety, unjustifiably impacts future generations of producers and family farmers.  Working with farmers and ranchers to ensure that any changes are needed, make sense on the farm and do not unnecessarily restrict young people from getting indispensable on-farm experience, is a far better approach.  Making certain aspiring farmers and ranchers have access to the training and educationalopportunities necessary will better ensure their success and a strong future for American agriculture and the U.S. economy. 

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