There are many aspects of farm life that those who do not live on a farm just don’t understand — not only the production aspects of agriculture, but also the dynamics of a farm family and the values and viewpoints of farm family members. Nothing illustrates this more than the divergent viewpoints on children and the role children play in a farming operation.
Two years ago some nameless bureaucrat in the Labor Department decided farming was too dangerous of an occupation for children to be around. The department then proposed a regulation that would have prevented young people from working on farms or even being around farming operations. This struck a raw nerve in rural American in a way that few other issues ever have. Washington was inundated with angry calls and letters as rural America rose up and, with one loud voice, shouted “NO!” Even farm groups were surprised by the fury and intensity of the response of their members to this ludicrous regulation.
The Labor Department quickly withdrew the idea and limped back into the shadows with its tail tucked between its legs. Yet, now consumer groups are at it again. The National Consumers League is calling for a ban on the use of child labor in American tobacco fields. The League stated in a release, “According to a Human Rights Watch report published earlier this year, children as young as 12 years old are being permitted to work in the fields in tobacco-producing states including North Carolina, Kentucky, Virginia, and Tennessee, being exposed to dangerous levels of nicotine and the resulting acute nicotine poisoning.” The release went on to say the organization is “launching a campaign to raise consumer awareness about this hidden practice in American agriculture and advocate for its abolition.”
For those of you who may not be familiar with how tobacco is raised, it is a very labor intensive process. Before the government swept tobacco growing farm families from the state of Indiana, I had the chance to visit with many of them. They were proud of their operations, proud of their crops, and spoke with pride about how the entire family was involved in the operation. Many spoke of how the farm was the glue that bound the family together and how, prior to the 1990s, these operations had been passed down through the family for generations.
Since the tobacco farms left SE Indiana, many of these families have disintegrated as the young people drift away to the city in search of a career after graduation. As for the claim that working in a tobacco field is harmful to your health, I cannot find any scientific evidence to support that claim and none was offered by the League.
Over my 33 year career in farm broadcasting, I have talked with hundreds of adults who grew up on farms and spent their childhood working in the family operation. Never have I had them talk about being oppressed or abused, but rather they speak with fondness about the hard work and family values they learned on the farm and how it has made them successful adults.
This gets to the heart of the matter. Outsiders see children working on farms as child labor, while farm families see it as a way the children can contribute to the family business and make a meaningful contribution to the family as a whole. A child who works alongside his parents performing meaningful tasks has a much different perspective on work and adulthood than one whose parents leave the house for 8 to 10 hours to do work, leaving the young person to play video games or engage in team sports.
The National Consumers League had made it clear that it is not just targeting tobacco operations but all of agriculture. It has called for “closing the loopholes that allow young children to work in agriculture.” The fight to keep our children involved in farming operations is just beginning. The daughter of a farm family I know has started a blog about what farm life is like from a young person’s perspective. Perhaps more farm kids should do this to help explain to those off the farm the realities of farm life and how farm families view children working on the farm.
By Gary Truitt