Proposed U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) rules governing child labor on farms continue to stoke a firestorm of criticism. Backlash has come from rural communities, agriculture advocacy groups, state and federal lawmakers.

To bolster their case, critics of the DOL proposals — which aim to update 40-year-old laws — cite everything from teaching youngsters responsibility to lessening the need for migrant labor to encouraging youth to consider a farming career as the average farmer age climbs.

The DOL proposals even came up in late March during a farm bill field hearing by the House Agriculture Committee. Arkansas Rep. Rick Crawford said he’d heard from “a number of folks” about the proposed child labor laws.

Responding to Crawford, Arkansas rancher Dan Stewart said if enacted, the rules “would be devastating to the family farm. My thought is that at an early age you need to instill a love for farming. In our area, particularly, farming is more than just an economic thing. It’s a way of life and something you really want to do because, at times, it’s tough. If you don’t love what you do, you’re not going to stay in it. If you instill that in your children and grandchildren at an early age, you can continue to have the family farm.”

Bipartisan legislation has been introduced in both the House and Senate (titled “Preserving America’s Family Farm Act -- S.2221 in the Senate and HR 4157 in the House) seeking to prevent the DOL from enacting the new restrictions.

Explaining his backing of S.2221, Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran said the DOL “has been largely unresponsive to the significant concerns raised by the agriculture community. Although the Secretary of Labor has agreed to rewrite parts of the regulations dealing with family farms, there are still enough problems with the overall rule that it should be held up. The safety of young people working on farms and ranches is important, but I question whether those writing these regulations truly understand farm life.”

State legislatures are also pushing against the DOL proposals. In late March, the Tennessee House passed a bill that says the state will not enforce federal regulations aimed at child labor on family farms. According to reports, a companion bill is in the Tennessee Senate.  

Through a lengthy, wide-ranging list of prohibitions, the DOL wants to stop children — over 50,000 work on farms nationwide — from hazardous duties. That would mean, for example, no work around silos, no driving 4-wheelers, no construction work, no corralling livestock, and no work more than six feet off the ground. It would also mean, say proponents of the changes, a downturn in farm-related injuries for children, which are four times higher than work in other fields.

Critics of the DOL, however, are now pointing to a new study published by the USDA’s National Agriculture Statistics Service (NASS) showing a downturn in farm accidents without the DOL changes. Looking at injuries to youth in 2001, 2004, 2006 and 2009, NASS found that “agriculture-related injuries to youth under 20 years of age on United States farms have decreased from 13.5 injuries per 1,000 farms in 2001 to 7.2 injuries per 1,000 farms in 2009. … An injury was defined as any condition occurring on the farm operation resulting in at least four hours of restricted activity or requiring professional medical attention.”