The U.S. Department of Labor has proposed new regulations that will address child labor on farms. Among the proposed rules, paid child workers (these could be kids employed by their own families) under the age of fifteen would not be allowed to operate tractors, combines, ATVs, or most other power-driven equipment without special certification. No one under eighteen could work around grain elevators, feed lots, or livestock auctions. And no texting while tractoring; no iPod or walkie-talkie use, either.
The critics, of whom there are many, say this is just another instance of Washington being out of touch with real Americans and their economic realities, poking its nose in places it shouldn’t, especially for those still down on the farm. Farm state legislators from Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, and probably other states are complaining.
The regulations provide an exemption for family farms, but the definition of “family farm” is very narrow, which means everything else that is not a “family farm” is very broad. Among those not exempted: Families with partial ownership of a farm incorporated as an LLC, as well as grandparents or uncles and aunts employing their grandchildren or nieces and nephews.
Family farming, critics argue, may now be big business, but it is also still a generational exchange, fathers passing land and skills to sons and daughters, stretching back to the days of the Homestead Act or earlier.
I can understand the critics. Among farm families, the desire and passion for and the work of farming is almost a genetic trait. Concerns about disruption of a way of life—one that is considered quintessentially American—are understandable.
But what occurs to me when considering the new regulations is that it could mean no more kids getting killed while riding on the back of tractors. Kids die in farm accidents. An under-eighteen farm worker faces a fatality rate about four times greater than his or her counterpart at, say, Taco Bell.
My first child funeral in my first parish was for a farm kid. Mark was eleven. He wanted to be a farmer, like his dad, like his dad’s dad. Mark’s father had been killed two years previous, before I came to the parish. A high-loader his father was working tipped forward and crushed him against a fence post. That was in 1978 before they came equipped with safety cages and roll bars (another government regulation). It was some while before his body was discovered. It must have been horrific. His death left a young widow with two sons, and now four years later another farm death left her with just one.
Mark was killed while riding on the back of a tractor driven by his grandfather, hauling a grain wagon across an ancient field bridge. It was a very small ravine, really, and the bridge was there to smooth the crossing and shorten the trip to a waiting grain truck. It had been used for years but one trip too many over the years, too much weight, and it cracked in the middle and dropped the tractor and wagon to the center, tossing Mark backward under a load of corn. He suffocated. His grandfather was thrown clear. The timbers showed interior rotting. It should have been replaced years before. It is haste and negligence and dumb stupid luck that kills farmers, and their children.
Mark’s death rolled over that small farm community like acid rain. I got out to the farm as soon as I heard. Mark’s grandfather was storming around the yard, cursing God. “Goddamn you, God; goddamn you.”
I was at a loss. I didn’t know what to say to him; I didn’t know if anything should be said to him. Let the rage subside; fix his theology; tell him God has a plan for everything? About that same moment a parishioner arrived, walked up to him and put both her hands on his shoulders and sort of gave him a little shake. “You can’t blame God for the devil’s work,” she said. Remarkably he calmed down, almost immediately.
Yes, her remark was simple, almost simplistic. But it turned out to be most of my sermon at the funeral. Maybe I’ll go into that another day.
For today, thirty-two years after Mark’s funeral, perhaps the greater lesson to draw is even simpler. Not all regulation is bad. Safety cages, roll bars, and other rules designed for worker safety, things that might have saved Mark’s life or his father’s, tells me a lot of good can come from what really on the whole amounts to a little inconvenience, compared to the life of a child.
Russell E. Saltzman is an online homilist for Christian Leadership Center at the University of Mary, and author of The Pastor’s Page and Other Small Essays. His previous On the Square articles can be found here.
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