First, to state the obvious. Basic child labor laws are essential to keep youngsters from dangerous jobs (coal mines and factories come to mind) and to let them have a chance for play and education. But even in the Dark Ages of the 1950s and 60s, we hopped on the yellow school bus every day, and with four siblings and nine cousins just down the road, we used our Midwest farm as a year round playground.
Along with building dams, snow forts, and haymow hideaways, we also learned to chore early–moving buckets of grain, milking our lone Guernsey, and eventually grabbing pitchforks to haul manure (my vote: chicken coops are the worst; I still have poultry dust in the upper reaches of my sinuses).
We eventually moved on to driving tractors and walking bean fields, and that’s where the proposed child labor laws come in. The ag community seems abuzz about the possibilities, and many are probably shouting “over regulation” and forecasting doom for farm families and student livestock groups. That might be true; I don’t know the finer points of the proposals, but if something is enacted to truly help with the safety and well-being of children, it’s hard to argue with it. However, if regulations interfere with regular “growing up on the farm” work and proper livestock show handling, then something seems amiss.
Stringent laws would have kept me out of the soybean fields at age thirteen. We had “walked beans” for Dad a year before, so I knew a bit about pulling the right weeds. When a neighbor needed a crew the following year, brothers, cousins, and I grabbed our gloves and hopped in a pickup truck to head down the road. I think the first job made us 50 cents an hour, so it’s obvious our union rep wasn’t very effective. But we had some fun and made some spending money to go along with bug bites, blisters, and sunburn.
We also learned how to cooperate—or fight—as a crew. And at times we worked for some enlightening farmers. One old timer, Clare, lived in the woods and his fields were set along creeks, groves, and rocky pastures. He’d tell us tales of his trapping days on lakes up north: “I’d pull a muskrat from a trap and have him skinned by the time I skated to the next trap.” We didn’t care if he exaggerated: “We hit a bee hive when shelling corn, and the bees came at us so thick, we were wipin’ ‘em off our brows.” He taught us how to cool down on a 95 degree day—he took us to a natural spring near the field and showed us how to first put cold water on our wrists then necks before drinking it. When we grew a bit older, we heard stories of Clare’s booze-running days in the Prohibition Era, but as with most of the tales, we weren’t sure what to believe.
As we matured into hay baling, tractor field work, and hog management, we grew to be less starry-eyed about joining the adult work force, but eventually the gas money I made for the ’56 Chevy dad had as a second car came in mighty handy. I also had a college savings account at the local bank, but I’m sure the amount in it suffers from huge inflation in my mind as I think back to my thrift—or lack of.
So, child labor laws? I know taxation, safety regs, and other policies have changed, and in many cases, changed for the better. But are new laws going to interfere with farming operations and youth livestock groups? I hope all sides concerned can use a bit of common sense to protect children but also protect useful activities on farms and in clubs.
Personally, I’m glad we had a chance to do a bit of paid outsourced work. But to be honest, I wouldn’t have minded some government regulations on the unpaid chore work on the home farm. I have a feeling that when I shoveled corn in a huge grain bin or helped vaccinate the hundred pigs in the hog house, the tune running through my head was probably the original line from the classic country song: Take this job and shove it.
by dan gogerty (photo: alibaba.com)