Child Labor in Agriculture

When I think of child labor, I think of kids in sweatshops making Nike shoes or little homeless kids forced into being drug couriers on the street. I don’t think of agriculture – and I certainly don’t think of the way I grew up – when I hear the term child labor, but that is the way some people are headed.

In a recent Huffington Post article Child Labor Rules Stalled At White House As Farm Accidents Continue:

Last week, two 17 year olds were critically injured in Oklahoma when they were pulled into a grain augur while on the job. Responders had to cut the augur to free the boys, who were flown to a hospital with severe leg injuries.

Yet the White House continues to sit on new child labor rules proposed last year by the Department of Labor that some safety advocates say could have prevented that accident.

Although the rules proposed by the Labor Department have not yet been made public, sources familiar with them say they would deem certain work activities on farms too dangerous for minors to perform, potentially strengthening laws that havenโ€™t been updated in 40 years.

I grew up on a cattle ranch. I started helping dad feed cows at 5 years old, learned to drive tractor in the hayfield, moved up to raking and then baling. I was shoving calves five times my size up the chute, working long days, bucking bales, riding horses and chasing cows. Was this child labor?

Ranching and farming accidents make my heart fall just as much as the next person’s, but legislation isn’t the answer to reducing the number of agricultural accidents. It is, and always will be, about proper agricultural safety training. Age has nothing to do with it. Throwing a 40-year-old man out on a combine who has never driven it before is a much higher risk than a 17-year-old who has been taught how to operate the equipment. As one of the comments said on the Huffington Post article, “What law do they think they can write that prevents accidents?”

I didn’t start driving a tractor in the hayfield to pick up bales until dad showed me how to run it. The speed wasn’t much more than a sedated snail’s pace, and dad was able to jump on if I got in trouble. Complete mastery at that meant moving up to raking hay – a much higher-paced job. And then baling with all types of moving pieces, power take-off shafts and potential for fire.

Working with livestock can be dangerous, no matter who you are. Even though I’ve worked with cattle my whole life, I still get kicked, hit, bruised and stomped. So has everyone else who’s been ranching for decades.

How can revisions to child labor laws impact that? Will it change the way children of ranchers and farmers grow up learning at their families’ sides?

Instead of safety advocates focusing on child labor legislation, the focus needs to be on proper agricultural safety training. Offer agricultural safety courses. Implement agriculture and safety classes into rural school districts. Get articles into farm and ranch publications providing safety tips and reminders of the dangers of working in agriculture.

Waiting on the White House to do something (that probably won’t help anyway and could negatively impact family operations) is a proven waste of time. Do something that matters today. Do something that can have an impact – even if it’s just one person – right now.


  1. I thought that is why you have so many siblings…in case of accidents. The first three are expendable so your parents can get it right for the last three.

    • Haha! I was trying to write a serious commentary, and you say something like that. Well-played. Thankfully nothing happened to the first three of us ๐Ÿ™‚

  2. Well said Erica! Same goes for animal welfare, guns, driving, cooking; it’s about being educated, not mandated legislation!


  1. […] View post: Child Labor in Agriculture | PNW Rancher […]

  2. […] August 2011, I said focus should be shifted from child labor legislation to safety education. With the statement released yesterday, it appears that is the direction the powers-that-be are […]

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