Although farm injuries among youths have been declining for more than a decade, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health still counted more than 15,000 incidents of young men and women under the age of 20 injuring themselves on farms in 2009.
Then, in July 2010, two boys, ages 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.
So the federal government proposes to race to the rescue, naturally, with new regulations that would:
— Prohibit children under 16 from being paid to operate most power-driven equipment, including tractors and combines.
— Bar those under 18 from working at grain elevators, silos, feedlots and livestock auctions and from transporting raw farm materials.
— Prohibit youths 15 and younger from cultivating, curing and harvesting tobacco to prevent exposure to green tobacco sickness.
The current legal age for children to be employed on a farm, 16, would not change. The proposed regulations would not apply to children working at farms owned by their parents, though they would prevent youngsters from doing some jobs for pay at the farms of neighbors and relatives, including grandparents.
"Farming is a very dangerous occupation, and you have to be aware of what you’re doing," U.S. Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer, R-Mo., who operates a 160-acre farm, tells USA Today. "But I’m a whole lot more concerned about the safety of my kids and grandkids on the farm than the government."
Mark Vagts, 53, a dairy farmer in West Union, Iowa, tells USA Today he 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."
Indeed, regulating what farm kids can do on their own grandparents’ farms is a fine new example of how the great Washington nanny state can’t imagine any area where deskbound regulation-writers thousands of miles away can’t do better than parents in keeping kids safe.
Las Vegans may assume such matters don’t impact us — there aren’t many big corn or wheat fields around here. But there are still plenty of family ranches in Nevada — ranches that could have trouble surviving if every local farm lad had to be replaced by a salaried adult.
In fact, Washington should be weighing its priorities and repealing regulations a thousand at a time, in hopes that it can afford to maintain the ones it considers most vital. Instead, it now wants to ban experienced farmers from teaching their grandkids how to drive the tractor.