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By Jack Minor

GREELEY, Colo. – A congressman in one of the country’s largest agricultural districts says rules proposed by the government that would bar young people from operating farm equipment considered “dangerous” is exactly what happens when bureaucrats with no real-world experience attempt to tell the rest of the world how to live.

“You get somebody who doesn’t understand agriculture and you get screwy regulations like this,” Rep. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., said.

His comments were directed to proposed rules from the Department of Labor that would bar anyone under the age of 16 from performing what the agency considers to be dangerous jobs – such as driving tractors, handling pesticides and branding cattle.

After receiving more than 18,000 comments by the initial Dec. 1 deadline, the government issued a statement that it was re-proposing the portion of its rule dealing with what it called the “parental exemption.”

Currently the parental exemption allows children of any age who are employed by their parent, or a person standing in the place of a parent, to perform any job on a farm.

But under the new regulations the exemption would only apply to the parent of the children. This would mean children would no longer be able to work on farms owned by their uncle, grandparents, other relatives or neighbors.

The reason given for the new rule was to bring regulations for children working on farms into “parity” with non-agricultural child labor provisions.

The new rules have the support of various “rights” groups including the National Council of La Raza and Human Rights Watch – as well as labor unions such as the United Steelworkers, AFL-CIO, American Federation of Teachers, Teamsters, SEIU and the United Food and Commercial Workers Union.

Proponents dispute that the rules would prohibit children from working on farms belonging to those other than their immediate family and limit their ability to drive tractors.

But Gardner said the intentionally vague requirements leave open the door to a lot of problems.

“Any time an agency can create a confusing series of rules that can be interpreted any way they want and have the ability to fine people for being out of compliance depending on what the agenda is, that is bad for the country,” he said.

Among other changes proposed would be the elimination of training and certification programs conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Federal Extension Service and vocational agriculture education institutions.

Despite the fact that groups such as 4-H and the Future Farmers of America have years of experience and successful long-term relationships with rural communities, the department says the organizations are delivering training “insufficient to provide a young hired farm worker with the skills and knowledge he or she would need to operate the diverse range of agricultural tractors and equipment in use on today’s farms.”

But the department offers no data to support the argument.

Another proposed change would be a ban on nearly all electronic devices while operating a tractor or other equipment. While the new regulations would permit the use of GPS devices provided the tractor is not moving, the regulations fail to take into account that modern farm equipment uses a variety of electronic tools that help improve safety, critics say.

Many of these systems require interaction between the machine and the operator during operation and can make equipment easier and safer when compared to older farm equipment without these devices.

In justifying the ban, the department attempts to make a correlation between driving automobile in traffic and driving a piece of farm equipment on a field where no other vehicles are present.

The department sites general statistics about accidents involving motor vehicles, but it does not provide any evidence that explains how motor vehicle accidents relate to the operation of farm machinery.

The only evidence offered is the department’s belief that the statistics may be applicable to the operation of farm machinery.

There is also a ban on “power-driven equipment,” which is defined as being “all machines, equipment, implements, vehicles and/or devices operated by any power source other than human hand or foot power.”

Additionally, “equipment operated by any source of energy, such as wind, electricity, fossil fuels, batteries, animals, or water, would all be considered ‘power-driven.’”

In a letter sent to Secretary Hilda Solis, 70 members of the House of Representatives expressed concern over the proposed rules, noting the changes would be detrimental to young Americans who currently participate in the FFA and 4-H programs. It would prohibit them from getting hands-on experience in agriculture.

Gardner said it was obvious those who designed the regulations never worked on a farm.

“They are too far removed from agriculture; they don’t understand what agriculture is and how it works,” he said.

He went on to say if the regulations were to go into effect they could have a devastating effect on his district.

“Our children, especially the next generation of agriculture, need experience and there are so few experienced individuals in production agriculture today they may or may not be able to get it from their parents. We shouldn’t restrict them from getting an experience in agriculture just because it’s not their parent’s farm or ranch,” he said.

In its own letter, the Senate said the Department of Labor was under no obligation to issue new regulations and has usurped the authority of Congress.

“It is puzzling why the department would suddenly propose changes to existing regulations, particularly considering the advancements in farm equipment and adoption of technologies and improved operator safety in the last 35 years,” the letter said.

It said, “Congress enacted different standards in the FLSA specifically to address the different occupational situations facing agriculture.”

“The FLSA does not contain, nor has Congress ever approved, the concept of ‘parity’ between agricultural and nonagricultural sectors. The department should abandon its goal of parity, unless specifically authorized to do so in the future by Congress.”

Gardner said while the new regulations are part of a pattern of regulatory overreach on all fronts, he lays the blame at the feet of Congress.

“Over the past decade or so, many of these regulations have come out because Congress delegated too much authority to the agencies and we did not do our proper job of actually legislating.”

He said there is a way to assure reasonable rules.

“We need for some of these bureaucrats to spend some time on the farm,” he said.

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