POST FALLS, Idaho - Anyone who grows up on a farm knows the day starts early and lasts long. Kids are a traditional part of agricultural labor. But child safety experts say that work can be dangerous. They're advocating new labor rules that have sparked a backlash among farmers in the Northwest and elsewhere.
Don Beck calls out to his cows on the Rathdrum Prairie in the Idaho panhandle. Beck's farm is on Beck Road. That's not a coincidence.
"We haven't traveled very far in the last, what, 112 years," Beck says.
He can still hear engines blow their whistles at the same stop where his grandfather first got off the train. Beck says each generation of farmers learns farming by doing it.
"If you're evaluating livestock, if you're looking at crops, the youngster that grows up with it, they don't even think about doing it in this manner or that manner."
Beck picked up farm skills from his parents and he's passed them on to his own son. One of those skills is recognizing the dangers of farm work.
Beck greets a black bull that's about the size of an economy car.
"He's just startin' to grow," Beck says.
I ask him, "So would you have a kid under 16 working with him?"
"No," he responds. "Never."
And the US Department of Labor doesn't want kids working with big livestock either. The agency has safety rules for agriculture, but they date back to 1970. Labor officials are now proposing a stricter set of regulations for what youth under 16 can be employed to do on farms and ranches.
On Capitol Hill in Washington D.C., Democratic Congresswoman Judy Chu of California says fatality statistics show kids are too often given hazardous jobs — especially the children of migrant workers.
"I think when you have a situation where three-quarters of all children killed on the work place are in agriculture -– which is more than all the other industries combined -– you have to do something," she says.
But other members of Congress have bristled at the Obama administration's proposed rules.
"Frankly, I think you're sitting around watching reruns of 'Blazing Saddles' and that's your interpretation of what goes on in the West and it isn't anymore," said Montana Republican Denny Rehberg at a recent hearing of a Small Business subcommittee. He was speaking to a Department of Labor official.
So was Congressman Roscoe Bartlett, a Republican from Maryland.
"There's not a problem," she said. "You can find some anecdotal things, but as the saying goes, "the juice ought to be worth the squeezing. Can't you find something more productive to do than hassle our farmers?"
Back in north Idaho, farmer Don Beck doesn't like the government dictating to small farmers either. But at the same time, he sees a place for regulations that ensure children's safety. In fact, Beck, on his own, has implemented rules for his workers that look a lot like what the government is proposing.
Remember that bull the size of a car? He doesn't let kids work with it or other livestock. And he doesn't allow teenagers, even 16-year-old workers, drive tractors.
"Do you think that farms are dangerous places?" I ask.
"Oh, inherently, without a doubt," Beck says. "And that's something that any responsible manager strives to get through his employees — that the dangers are going to be there."
You can read Beck's experience both ways. On the one hand, he's an example of farmers ensuring safety on their own. On the other, even farmers see that children shouldn't be allowed to do certain jobs.
The federal government does have an exception for parents and their kids. But in Washington, D.C., family farmers argued the proposed rules could still bar children from working on their grandparents' farm, or on farms owned by multiple families.
In response, labor officials have announced they'll rework the "parental exemption."
Journalist Elizabeth Wynne Johnson contributed to this report from Washington, D.C.
Copyright 2012 Northwest News Network