GRAND RIDGE, Ill. -- Tossing hay into cattle pens is the first chore Austin Walter remembers doing on his parents' farm. When he was 9, he got his first lesson in operating a tractor — in first gear only, his dad, Darren, says, "so I could go catch him."
Austin, who is now 14, tends heifers, makes sure the barbed-wire fence around the pasture is intact and helps clean equipment and care for calves on his grandfather and great-uncle's bigger farm a couple of miles down the road.
"This is what I want to do," says Austin, an A student and football player who has won many awards for showing livestock at fairs. "If you grow up in the farm atmosphere and you're safely trained and you enjoy it, I think you should be allowed to."
Proposed federal regulations could alter Austin's plans to work part time for pay on his relatives' farm. The Labor Department wants to update child-labor rules governing agricultural work for the first time in four decades.
The new rules would:
•Prohibit children under 16 who are being paid from operating most power-driven equipment, including tractors and combines. Some student-learners would be exempted from the ban on operating tractors and other farm implements, but only if the equipment has rollover protection and seat belts.
•Bar those under 18 from working at grain elevators, silos, feedlots and livestock auctions and from transporting raw farm materials.
•Prevent youths 15 and younger from cultivating, curing and harvesting tobacco to prevent exposure to green tobacco sickness, which is caused by exposure to wet tobacco plants.
•Prohibit youths from using electronic devices such as cellphones while operating power-driven equipment.
The legal age for children to be employed on a farm is 16 and would not change. The Fair Labor Standards Act also allows children 12 to 15 to have non-hazardous farm jobs under certain conditions.
The proposed regulations would not apply to children working at farms owned by their parents, but they would prevent youngsters from doing some jobs for pay at the farms of neighbors and relatives.
Threat to a lifestyle?
The proposed rules drew more than 18,000 public comments after they were published in September in the Federal Register and created a ruckus among farmers and ranchers. Some members of Congress hope to block them from taking effect.
"It's just more government trying to get in the middle of our lives" and could "change the whole (rural) lifestyle," says U.S. Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer, R-Mo., who operates a 160-acre farm. "Farming is a very dangerous occupation, and you have to be aware of what you're doing, but I'm a whole lot more concerned about the safety of my kids and grandkids on the farm than the government."
Youngsters helping out on neighbors' farms "is a slice of Americana," Luetkemeyer says. "This is how we grew up."
Nancy Leppink, deputy administrator of the Labor Department's Wage and Hour Division, says the changes are necessary to keep children safe. More than 15,000 youths under the age of 20 were injured on farms in 2009, according to the latest data from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Most injuries involved farm chores, followed by accidents on all-terrain vehicles, horses and tractors.
The rules would not prevent anyone under 18 from performing non-hazardous jobs such as cleaning barns on farms and won't bar them from participating in 4-H and Future Farmers of America (FFA) clubs.
Labor Secretary Hilda Solis wants to implement the new rules, Leppink says, after analyzing fatality and injury data and concluding that some farm jobs are "too hazardous for children to be engaged in." Congressional approval is not required because the proposed changes amend existing regulations.
The Labor Department is reviewing public comments and plans to act as quickly as possible, she says.
Farm injuries among youths have been declining for more than a decade, says Barbara Lee, senior research scientist at the National Farm Medicine Center in Marshfield, Wis., but precautions are essential. "Adults should be able to make their own decisions about putting themselves at risk," she says. "But a child should not be put into that position."
When they are, the consequences can be dire. In July 2010, two boys, 14 and 19, died in a corn bin they were trying to clear in Illinois. A few months later, a 3-year-old Michigan boy died after falling from the combine his father was driving.
Reid Maki, coordinator of the Child Labor Coalition, which fights exploitative child labor, said in comments submitted on the proposed rules that delaying the changes would mean that youths working on farms "will be killed and maimed unnecessarily."
Mark Vagts, 53, a dairy farmer in West Union, Iowa, first sat on a tractor when he was 5. He taught his son and daughter, now adults, to use caution around farm animals and equipment when they were very young. Farm work, he says, "builds confidence and teaches kids to be responsible." He now hires local youths to help on his farm, and he opposes the proposed limits.
"No. 1, they take away our liberty. That really bugs me," he says. "I'm sick of regulation. My answer to regulation is education." He believes that youngsters who work on farms should first take safety courses through the FFA or other organizations, and he wouldn't object if young workers were required to take such courses.
In a comment he submitted to the Labor Department on the proposed rule changes, Vagts wrote, "We often need help with baling hay and straw, chopping hay and hauling manure. It is an opportunity for young people to earn money and develop good work skills."
Safety through education
Darren Walter, 39, says Austin will take a tractor-safety course this summer so he can learn to disk fields. Austin already knows the basics: "You put the seat belt on, take the tractor out of park and you honk the horn to make sure nobody is around you," he says. "You check that there's nothing you're going to run into."
Austin says his parents and other adults make sure he's not around dangerous equipment or frisky livestock, and he doesn't mind. "If you aren't safe and you get hurt," he says, "then you can't participate."
Darren, whose grandfather died in 1975 when an axle broke on the sprayer he was driving, says he and his wife, Samantha, 35, would never put their sons Austin and Dalton, 8, at risk.
Samantha says Austin is never allowed to be around grain augurs, for example. "We don't even let that happen," she says. And Dalton won't necessarily be allowed to take on new chores at the same age Austin did. "Each kid is different," she says. "Dalton is maturing at a different rate, and he's not ready for certain things yet."
Darren Walter says the pending new regulations suggest that officials in Washington "don't understand how much we respect the value of our children's safety. We truly take it on ourselves to teach safety and responsibility and respect to our children."
Dalton, who wants to be a professional football player, sometimes helps put feed in buckets and throws hay from the loft of the barn. His big brother helps teach him how to do chores safely, and his dad says Dalton won't be ready to get on a tractor for a couple of years.
If Austin can't work on his grandfather's farm to save money for college, Darren Walter says, he'll have to find other work. "We're going to basically regulate rural youth into forcing them to go get jobs in town," he says. "Where are our future farmers going to come from?"