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Christopher Bjorke, Grand Forks Herald , Published July 11 2012

Few limits in North Dakota on child farm labor

GRAND FORKS - On family farms, the transition from riding in a parent’s lap on a tractor to operating one can be a matter of just a few years.

“In the 15 to 18 years I’ve been teaching tractor safety classes, a lot of these kids have been driving since they were 9, 10, 11 years old,” said Rick Schmidt, a North Dakota State University extension agent in Oliver County.

Operating tractors and other heavy equipment as soon as they are big enough to reach the controls has been how many farmers have grown up in a region of family farms.

A recent set off rules, proposed but soon withdrawn by the U.S. Department of Labor, would have set a minimum age of 16 for children to operate tractors and other farm equipment. It would have exempted work done by young people on farms owned by their parents.

The short-lived proposal drew a swift reaction from farm groups and other interests that saw it as an unnecessary encroachment on farming traditions.

“We just felt it went too far,” said Woody Barth, president of the North Dakota Farmers Union. “Children need to be on farms.”

Another proposed rule would have set a minimum age of 18 for workers in grain elevators, silos and feed lots.

Steve Strege, executive vice president of the North Dakota Grain Dealers Association, said he did not know of many cases of young people working in elevators and would not likely be doing the most strenuous work in such places.

In North Dakota, there is little in the state law to regulate what children can do on farms.

“Farm labor, I’ll say generally is exempt from youth employment laws in North Dakota,” said state Labor Commissioner Tony Weiler.

Farm work, however, is a dangerous occupation for children and adults. In 2011, there were 37 traumatic injuries of young people 18 or younger on farms. Over the past five years, a total of 818 traumatic injuries on farms included injuries to 160 young people.

“Of course, we all know safety is important and we stress that whenever we can,” Weiler said.

Schmidt’s tractor safety courses are designed for children 14 or 15 years old. Age is a factor with the safe operation of equipment, but it also depends on the maturity level of children.

“In some cases, kids might be ready and in other cases they’re not,” he said.

The extension service does not recommend anyone younger than 14 operate equipment. Schmidt also said children should not ride in equipment that does not have a “buddy seat” designed for a passenger or if it does not have a cab or rollover protection system.

Farm equipment has included more safety features over the years, but machinery becoming bigger and more technologically complex has led to new types of equipment accidents if users are not accustomed to new features.

One of the most dangerous pieces of equipment for young people is not a large piece of machinery, but small all-terrain vehicles, Schmidt said.

As aware as he is of the safety hazards posed by operating equipment, he said rules limiting what young people can do on farms would rob them of early education necessary to become farmers.

“I would’ve really struggled with that,” Schmidt said. “Kids want to learn when they’re young.”