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Department of Labor backs down

Loud music, laser lights and an arena filled with keyed up teens. I’m not describing a Justin Bieber concert, but rather the Missouri FFA Convention.

For two days every April, FFA members from across the state gather in Columbia for competitions, award ceremonies and fellowship. The sea of national blue and corn gold corduroy jackets is always an impressive sight. To attend the convention as a past FFA member, parent or supporter, one can’t help but be proud of the students’ accomplishments and inspired by their enthusiasm, professionalism and dedication. They also have a desire to get their hands dirty — that is, experience production agriculture.

Kids, parents and the entire agricultural community can be relieved the U.S. Department of Labor decided on Thursday, April 26, to back away from its overly restrictive youth labor proposal. Published in September 2011, the DOL’s notice of proposed rulemaking could basically be broken into two parts: the parental exemption portion and the student learner portion.

Narrowing the parental exemption might have resulted in nieces, nephews and grandchildren under 16 years of age not being allowed to work for compensation on a multi-family farm if the farm isn’t “wholly owned” by a parent or person standing in place of a parent.

The loss of student learner exemptions would have affected high school freshmen and sophomores enrolled in agricultural science, especially those who don’t live on farms, because their options for a Supervised Agricultural Experience (SAE) project would be limited. For instance, the labor proposal prohibited a kid under age 16 from “any activity involving physical contact” with “all machines, equipment, implements…operated by any power source other than human hand or foot power.” As crazy as it sounds, the use of battery-powered tools like drills could have even been off-limits.

Working with livestock would have also been problematic if the tasks involved milking cows, herding cattle on horseback, treating sick or injured animals or assisting in any practices that inflict pain upon the animal. Practices that could result in unpredictable animal behavior were also included. When is an animal’s behavior predictable?

Those are a few examples of the DOL’s recommendations — and solid reasons why Farm Bureau made it a priority to push for the withdrawal of the rulemaking. DOL officials tried to downplay their proposed changes, but the effort was still seen as a threat to farming traditions.

The DOL did the right thing in pulling the rule. Now officials say they want to work with agriculture to develop an educational program and better promote safety. Perhaps a good first step would be to attend an FFA convention and better understand why our kids were saying “let us get our hands dirty.”

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