There is an old folk saying, “Let sleeping dogs lie.” Some well meaning bureaucrats at the Department of Labor wish they had done that. Their plan to mandate new safety rules for children stirred up a hornet’s nest of angry farm families which resulted in a withdrawal of the proposal and a black eye for the Obama administration in a critical election year. Not in recent memory has an issue so united the voice of rural America in righteous indignation. It also demonstrated that it is possible for the tail to wag the dog.
From Washington’s viewpoint, the proposal would prevent young people from participating in farm activities that they see as dangerous. From the isolation of the government bureaucracy, these regulatory do-gooders see accident statistics that are higher for farm kids than for children in urban areas who spend their free time playing computer games. It is also likely that a high profile farm accident last fall, where two teens were electrocuted while detasseling on an Illinois farm, may have played a part in the decision to propose the new rule.
As Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis explained to a Congressional committee, the purpose of the rule was to standardize safety rules across the nation. But as happens so often when Washington proposes new rules, there were unintended consequences. In this case, the rules would have prevented youth from even using simple hand tools on their own farm and from participating in 4-H and FFA programs. Doing chores and helping with the farm is as much a part of the rhythm of rural life as the change of seasons — fact overlooked by the neophytes at the DOL. To this day, there are most likely some government workers sitting in cubicles scratching their heads and asking, “What happened?”
What happened was rural America found its voice and yelled, “NO!!!” In letters, calls, and in-person comments to lawmakers, farm groups, and the media, farm families spoke up. As Don Villwock, President of the Indiana Farm Bureau told me, “This issue excited and ignited farm families across the country.” Unlike other issues that sometimes divide agriculture along regional and commodity lines, the loss of having their children participate in farming activities generated a united and passionate response that Washington could not ignore. Agriculture and rural American tend to get ignored in the nation’s capitol. Outside of the USDA, and even sometimes within it, the interests and concerns of farm and rural families are not considered important or relevant. So I am pretty sure the reaction to the DOL plan came as a real shock to many inside the Beltway.
But while we revel in our victory, we must remain vigilant. As Villwock observed, this is not the end of the issue. Once Washington decides there is a problem that needs to be solved, they will keep working on a plan to fix the problem. Villwock suggests that agriculture needs to reach out and educate the DOL about life on the farm and, also, we need to address the issue of safety.
The meddlers in Washington have learned you don’t mess with farm folk, and rural American has learned if they get mad enough they can affect change in Washington. Now both sides have to learn how to work together. We do need to provide a safe environment for our young people, but not at the expense of their participation in the family farm. The same level of passion and energy that went into defeating this rule now needs to be directed into promoting on-farm safety while preserving our way of life and passing on vital skills to the next generation.
by Gary Truitt