RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Life as a kid on a farm can seem idyllic. The work, though, can be dangerous. Kids who do farm work are six times more likely to be killed than those doing other jobs.
The Department of Labor now wants new regulations that would bar children under the age of 16 from doing the most dangerous farm jobs. As Harvest Public Media's Peggy Lowe reports, that's angered many who depend on such labor, and see it as a right of passage.
PEGGY LOWE, BYLINE: It's early this windy Saturday morning on Kent Winter's farm in southwest Kansas. Winter is guiding his son, 16-year-old Phillip, as he backs a pickup up to a 25-foot-high stack of hay bales near the family's flock of sheep.
KENT WINTER: Do you guys need bale hooks?
LOWE: Grabbing bale hooks and jumping into the back of the truck, Phillip and his 13-year-old brother, Kurt, are no different than other farm kids who bale hay, tend animals or work in fields all across the country.
But for the first time in 30 years, the government wants to have a say in protecting what it says are vulnerable young workers. The Labor Department has proposed barring kids under 16 from jobs like working around breeding animals or handling pesticides.
While the rule would exempt family farms, critics say there's a catch. Many larger family farms are both multigenerational and incorporated, making them ineligible for the exemption. And in a move considered heresy here in farm country, the officials want to ban kids from driving a tractor. Ag groups and farmers are outraged.
JORDAN DUX: It just simply prevents, and will make a very big dent, into trying to get that next generation, that young individual, interested in agriculture again. I think we can say this is a pretty direct attack on trying to interest folks in agriculture, and it's going to cause some problems.
LOWE: That's Jordan Dux of the Nebraska Farm Bureau. But one man's right of passage is another man's peril. Safety advocates say while it would be outrageous to think that a 12-year-old would be allowed to drive a bulldozer on a construction site, that's comparable to what farm kids do every day. The Department of Labor's Michael Hancock has heard a lot of the criticism on the proposal, but he's not buying it.
MICHAEL HANCOCK: Tractors are dangerous. I saw my grandfather lay in a hospital for two weeks after his tractor rolled over. So nobody can tell me that tractors aren't dangerous; they're extremely hazardous. They're very unstable. They're operating on uneven terrain, and in circumstances where rollovers are all too common.
KENT WINTER: OK, what's the math? How many more do we need?
LOWE: Back in Kansas, Kent Winter thinks it's a shame that the government wants to intrude on his family business, which was built with the help of each of his eight children. Standing in the back of his dad's pickup, bale hook still in hand, 16-year-old Phillip says he worries that the change might mean he won't be able to work on his uncle's farm this summer.
PHILLIP WINTER: I don't really think it's necessary. We've been doing it for years. There really hasn't been any problems with it. So...
LOWE: Have you ever been hurt?
PHILLIP WINTER: No, I haven't.
LOWE: Do you know anybody who has been?
PHILLIP WINTER: Uh, no.
(SOUNDBITE OF ENGINE STARTING)
PHILLIP WINTER: Do you want us to deliver it now?
KENT WINTER: Yes, why don't you kids go ahead and deliver it before this wind comes up any more.
LOWE: Like that cold wind coming across the prairie, the outcry from farm country has already caused the Labor Department to push back the deadline for public comment on the plan. Both sides have until December 1st to register their support, or disdain, for a plan that could alter life on the farm for millions.
For NPR News, I'm Peggy Lowe. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.