Ronald F. Porter, co-owner of Porterdale Farms in Adams Center, plans to hire his 12-year-old son, Andrew W., to work on the familys 5,000-acre dairy farm when hes 14, teaching him basic skills in farming and machinery.
But that plan could be scrapped if a regulation proposed by the U.S. Department of Labor takes effect this summer. It would prohibit 14- and 15-year-olds from driving tractors and operating other equipment on farms even basic tasks would be off-limits except in limited circumstances.
The rule unless it is blocked by lawmakers would radically change the way 36,000 farms across New York do business.
While the Department of Labor has pledged to include an exemption allowing parents to let their biological children work, the regulation would not allow teens to work for anyone else, even an aunt, uncle or grandparent. Moreover, the hazardous occupation provision would mean that no 14- or 15-year-old, even a child working on his parents farm, could operate machinery that meets the definition of hazardous.
Although the rule may be well-intentioned aiming to prevent injuries among teenagers Mr. Porter said, it fails to address the fact that most farmers ensure their children are adequately trained to use dangerous equipment. He said its important to expose teenagers to farm work at an early age when theyre still choosing a career path.
If a young person cant get exposed to whats involved in farming, its going to become challenging for them to choose it as a profession, he said. Im looking for Andrew to start work when hes 13 or 14. I was driving a tractor when I was that age and milking cows when I was 16.
Theres already a scarcity of young people interested in careers in agriculture, Mr. Porter said. Not allowing them to work at a young age will make filling the older generations shoes even more challenging.
Where is that going to leave the future of agriculture here? he asked.
If the rule isnt swiftly thwarted by lawmakers on Capitol Hill in the coming months, the effect on farmers across the state and in the north country could be devastating, said Rep. William L. Owens, D-Plattsburgh. Mr. Owens has co-sponsored a bill to prohibit the regulation from being approved.
You can imagine what the effect of this might be on farmers if its passed in the middle of the harvesting and production season, he said, adding he started fighting the rule last year after hearing feedback from a 10-year-old boy at a Watertown City Council meeting who described how he wouldnt be able to work on his familys farm if the restriction passed.
Mr. Owens added the department didnt take the time to study what farmers are already doing at the ground level to ensure teens are properly trained.
People are already acting responsibly relative to their kids, watching what theyre doing and enrolling them in training courses, he said.
Working on a farm helps teenagers develop important life and occupational skills at a critical age a point the regulation fundamentally ignores, said Jay M. Matteson, Jefferson County agriculture coordinator. He pointed out that almost all of the 36,000 farms in the state are family-owned.
We continue to see the federal government take our children out of opportunities to be involved in family businesses by passing onerous regulations that go beyond whats reasonable, Mr. Matteson said. They take (adolescents) out of opportunities to develop early desires and work ethic and then turn around and say they arent active enough and implement other programs.
Steve G. Winkler, owner of Lucki 7 Livestock Co. in Rodman, has a 14-year-old son, Peter L., and daughter, Tessa A., who work on his farm, along with two teenage boys who live next door. In addition to taking away much-needed labor on the farm, he said, the laws would erase life experiences that most young teenagers have on the farm growing up.
Peter works on the farm every day, he said of his son. This could strip him of a possible interest in this profession if hes not allowed to work.
Mr. Winkler, who grew up working on his parents farm in East Poestenkill, said doing so has been a strong family tradition for all members of his family.
Members of my family and community rely on this employment, and it trains young people to hold down a job, show up on time and learn to be responsible, he said. Even if they dont become farmers, were teaching them a trade that will help them become ready for any occupation.