During the holiday season, I was reminded of how blessed I am to live in a rural state where family values and community traditions run deep. No tradition runs deeper from generation to generation than the tradition of working on a family farm.
However, these rural traditions are under attack in Washington, DC. In September, the U.S. Department of Labor proposed a new rule that would ban youth under the age of 16 from participating in many common farm-related tasks, like rounding up cattle on horseback, operating a tractor, or cleaning out stalls with a shovel and wheelbarrow. To most young Kansans growing up on a farm, these jobs are just part of their daily routine.
According to the American Farm Bureau Federation, about 98% of our country’s two million farms are family owned. By working alongside their parents, grandparents and neighbors, young people learn important life skills and values like hard work, personal responsibility and perseverance. They learn how to problem solve and work on a team to get things done. Agriculture is a way of life; but now the federal government wants to change that way of life.
Until recently, farms jointly owned and operated by multiple family members had discretion over the responsibilities they gave their children on the farm. But this new rule would do away with that freedom. The government is proposing to tell farmers and ranchers: “We know what’s best for your children, and what they should and should not be doing.”
The Department of Labor is also trying to do away with successful farm safety training and certification programs. Organizations like cooperative extension, 4-H, and FFA play a critical role in training and certifying young people to safely carry out farm activities. But the Department has ignored research that shows such programs improve safety habits of young people and instead criticizes these training programs for being too locally driven and lacking federal direction.
One would assume that before making such drastic changes to farm labor rules, the Department would identify reliable evidence and data that shows a need for these changes. But quite the opposite is true. In fact, the Department of Labor admits it lacks the data to justify many of its suggested changes. Furthermore, according to the National Farm Medicine Center, youth-related injuries from farm accidents have declined by nearly 60 percent from 1998 to 2009.
If you ask any farmer or rancher about the importance of safety – they would tell you that safety is one of their top concerns. But they would also tell you that critical to the rural way of life is being able to train the next generation to safely and successfully begin a career in agriculture. If today’s young people are not given the chance to learn at a young age what it takes to operate a farm – we put at risk the future of agriculture in our nation.
If these changes go into effect, not only will the shrinking rural workforce be further reduced, and our nation’s youth be deprived of valuable career training opportunities, but most importantly – a way of life will begin to disappear.
I recently met a student named Audrey Green from Stockton who is the president of her school’s FFA chapter. Audrey didn’t grow up on a farm, but recognizes the importance of agriculture to the rural way of life in Kansas. She recently participated in a district-wide FFA speech contest and said this about the new regulations: “If the proposed rules do go into effect, the amount of kids involved in agriculture would decrease. I know that our one stoplight, two convenience store town would become even more obsolete without the youth who are the future of agriculture.”
Our country cannot afford to lose the next generation of farmers and ranchers. Parents and communities should be allowed to look after the best interests of their families and citizens. And local experts should be the ones conducting safety training programs to educate our nation’s young people. The future of agriculture depends on stopping this vast overreach of executive authority and protecting individual rights. I have shared my concerns and the concerns of many of Kansas farmers and ranchers with the Secretary of Labor now on two separate occasions.
We know that rural America’s values are not Washington’s values. In the weeks ahead, I will continue to work with my colleagues to make certain this destructive rule does not move forward, so we can protect and preserve our values for the next generation of American farmers and ranchers.