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Family farms could be affected by new Ohio child labor laws

Melissa Topey • Feb 4, 2012 at 5:00 AM

A storm brewing on Capitol Hill means one thing to American farmers: the weather isn’t their only worry in the months ahead.

Local farm families and agricultural industry leaders say they’re concerned about the potential fallout from possible changes to the country’s youth labor laws. 

“I can understand the reasoning — wanting to protect children who should not be doing a man’s job,” said Gerald Oney, owner of a dairy farm in Greenwich. “But the government may be intervening when it might not be necessary. There are plenty of jobs a 14- to 15-year-old can do on the farm.”

In August, U.S. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis proposed a new version of labor laws governing the employment of minors at farms.

It’s the first such proposal in more than 40 years. 

Among many things, the plan would prohibit children younger than 16 from performing what the government deems dangerous work on farms, such as driving tractors, handling pesticides and branding cattle.  

Children who work on farms are four times more likely to die on the job than their counterparts in other industries, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

The department identified farm tasks that most often result in death or injuries for young employees. The legislative changes aim to prohibit that type of work and limit minors to tasks that don’t jeopardize their health and safety.

Beyond that, however, the changes would have a huge impact on family farms like Oney’s.

The existing legislation provides a “family exemption” that lets farmers’ relatives help out in various capacities. Cousins, in-laws, nieces, nephews and others who are minors have been allowed to work at family farms because of this exemption.

Opponents say Solis’ proposal eliminates this exemption for extended family members, replacing it instead with a “parental exemption” that only lets children of farmers, or their employees, work at the farm. 

The Ohio Farm Bureau is among the agencies fighting Solis’ plan. 

“We support safety regulations, but this rule as written will result (in) a ban on youth employment on farms,” said Spencer Waugh, the Ohio Farm Bureau’s director of legislative relations.

“As written, it will narrow what is currently a family exemption to a parental exemption,” Waugh said. “For example, a teenager or child could not work on their cousin’s land.

“For the first five to 10 years, people are going to be feeling out the impact,” he said. “It could be detrimental.”

Over the years, Oney raised five children, all of whom helped out at his 500-cow dairy farm.

Under his supervision, his children experienced work that ultimately helped them decide if they wanted to become farmers.

Oney continues the tradition to this day with his four grandchildren.

But he says he’s worried the new rules will rob his grandchildren of a chance to learn about farming.

“I’m afraid it may take away learning opportunities,” he said.

Joe and Jody Kapp own a livestock farm on West Toussaint Road in Oak Harbor, as well as a second farm near Curtice, where they grow crops like corn and wheat.

Their family members and friends, including two high schoolers in agricultural programs, often help bale hay and tend to other tasks.

Like many, the Kapps are concerned about Solis’ plan.

Kapp said her family needs all the help it can get during hectic seasons, such as planting and harvesting.

The income from both farms, combined with Kapp’s income as a teacher, is enough to keep the bills paid.   

“We could not reduce our farms,” Kapp said. “We could not support our family. We might lose quite a few family members helping us.”

Congressman Bob Latta is among several legislators opposing Solis’ proposal.

The new labor laws would indeed make it illegal for extended family members to help out on family farms, Latta said.

“This proposal will have negative affects on young people who want to gain practical experience on farms and in agribusiness,” Latta said. “Less than 1 percent of Ohioans earn a living on the farm.

The proposed rules would prevent children from gaining life experience not just at farms, but in 4-H and similar ventures, he said.

“The labor rules proposed from Washington not only stifle the (agricultural) industry, but prevent our nation from building the next generation of family farmers,” Latta said. 

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