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DARWIN, MINN. - Tristan Grangroth grinned as the big tractor roared to life. Sitting in the driver's seat at age 14, he loves the power of controlling the huge machine, churning up fields of a neighbor's farm where he has worked for years.
He's not happy -- nor is his employer -- with proposed new federal rules that would, in the name of safety, further limit the kinds of hired farm work that he can do at his age.
"You just use common sense and you're fine," Grangroth said, the brim of his cap nearly hiding his round face.
The U.S. Department of Labor is proposing the new rules to protect hired young farm workers from doing a range of tasks deemed most hazardous, from loading logs to climbing silos. The step has spread unease across swaths of farm country, where up to 56,000 young workers could be affected. Agricultural leaders say the rules will chip away at a cornerstone of American life by keeping youngsters from taking an interest in the business and preventing them from learning responsibility.
"If kids have to wait until they're 16, 18 years old to learn how to handle equipment and breed animals, they might go decide to do something else," said Thom Petersen, director of government relations for the Minnesota Farmers Union, which represents more than 11,000 farm families in the state. "Farm safety is a number-one issue on most farms and for every farmer I know. But on the other hand, so is bringing in the next generation."
The proposed changes have created a flurry of debate, with more than 10,000 people submitting comments. Last month, some Capitol Hill lawmakers proposed legislation to stop the department from making the changes.
Proponents contend that the 40-year-old existing rules for children working on farms need updating for modern equipment and mechanization. The fatality rate for young agricultural workers is four times that of their peers working elsewhere, they point out. They argue the changes wouldn't affect farm learning programs or family farms -- farming parents are exempt and can assign any chores to their kids -- but will make hired, young farm workers safer by imposing rules closer to those in other industries.
"We want children to work, we want them to get meaningful experiences in agriculture and we want them to survive those opportunities," said Barbara Lee, director of the National Children's Center for Rural and Agricultural Health and Safety in Marshfield, Wis. "We've seen kids that have a leg amputated or an arm amputated doing something that they should have never been. ... Sure, everybody feels awful about it, but that child needs to live with it for the rest of their life. ... Every one of those is preventable."
Ag leaders say many of the proposed rules are overly broad and unclear. Farmers and agriculture teachers complain the lines haven't been clearly drawn on what tasks hired kids such as Grangroth would be allowed to do.
A dose of caution
Grangroth still would be permitted to drive tractors and do more than most 14- and 15-year-olds because he's taking an agriculture class and working under "student learner" exceptions.
Climbing a tractor to hose it down last week to get it ready for planting, the lanky teen explained the appeal the giant machines have for him, saying, "You can't find 200 horsepower in everyday things."
But new restrictions would prevent him from operating other equipment or even climbing some ladders.
The farmer for whom he works, 69-year-old John Juusola, watched from the machine shed nearby and pronounced the new rules "ridiculous." He wouldn't let Tristan work around dangerous power take-offs or inside grain bins, he said.
For the tasks he will allow, Juusola said he's careful to instill common sense -- and fear -- in the students he has hired over nearly five decades of farming the rolling countryside of central Minnesota. "I always explain what can happen to you ... you know, put a scare into them," he said.
Working on a farm requires caution, he said: "If you're sitting in the house watching TV, you're not gonna get hurt."
List of no-nos
The proposed rules would mainly prevent hired kids under 16 from doing a long list of tasks, including crawling up structures taller than 6 feet, helping with construction and demolition, vaccinating livestock, herding animals into corrals, loading timber and driving ATVs.
Workers under 18 could not use electronic devices such as cellphones when operating power equipment and couldn't work at grain elevators, livestock exchanges and similar facilities that buy and sell farm products.
While some of the proposed regulations are completely new, others are expansions or reiterations of existing rules, such as those preventing young kids from working in manure pits and handling pesticides, anhydrous ammonia or explosives.
Agriculture leaders say some proposed rules are confusing, though. A written Labor Department guide says hired workers under 16 would be prohibited from "operating all power-driven machines," for instance. Phrases like that have elicited pointed comments.
"Simple devices such as a weed-whacker, a lantern or a flashlight can be battery-powered. Are they prohibited?" Joel Larsen, agriculture program specialist for the Minnesota Department of Education, asked in a letter to the department.
Rep. Tom Latham, R-Iowa, called the rules an "attack" on an American tradition. "The armies of federal bureaucrats who spend day after day drawing up new regulations have now set their sights on the institution of the family farm," he said in a news release.
The Labor Department is reviewing the comments and hasn't set a timeline for finalizing or implementing rules. The department is also considering whether to exempt children of parents who are partial owners of farms. It is expected to propose new rules and take public comments on that question sometime this summer.
Farming treated differently
Rules for children working on farms have long been different. Lee, the Wisconsin farm safety advocate, said it harks back to family farms being not only a job, but a lifestyle with a certain sense of independence.
"We owe it to the young people to make sure that adults, and especially employers, are not misunderstanding the role of children and misunderstanding the abilities or the skills of young people," Lee said.
Other business owners aren't exempted from safety restrictions for their children, she pointed out: "If you own, let's say a butcher shop or a restaurant and you have your kids working there ... the rules restricting what kids can do apply in those situations."
The National Safety Council ranks agriculture among the deadliest industries. Ag teachers and others argue education is key; 16-year-olds won't know more about farm safety than 14-year-olds unless they're taught, they say.
Even some farm accident survivors are reluctant to mandate safety changes.
Five years ago, at age 15, Kristi Ruth survived getting her arm wrapped in a high-speed power take-off on her parents' Iowa farm. Her dad had warned her and her brothers to stay away, she said, but she thought she knew what she was doing. First her glove got sucked in, then her coat. Her entire arm got wrapped around the machine, and it almost got amputated at the shoulder.
Now, with limited use of the arm, she and her parents run a cow operation. She has mixed feelings on the proposed rules, she said.
"Things happen sometimes, but I wouldn't change how I grew up for anything," she said. "It's good that they're doing things, but you can't fix a problem by signing a piece of paper or passing something in Washington or at the statehouse. The way you're going to change it is changing people's attitudes."
Pam Louwagie • 612-673-7102