LANSING, Mich. — Sparking outrage across the country’s rural heartland, the Obama administration is proposing rules to curb the ability of children on farms to engage in “corn sex” for pay.
Farmers call it corn detasseling, a time-honored but physically demanding chore designed to promote cross-pollination in the field. For decades it has been a way for teens to earn extra spending money — and forge some good-natured field hand camaraderie — for a few weeks each summer.
The Obama administration is considering revisions to federal agricultural work rules that effectively would bar teens younger than 16 from engaging in a number of traditional chores for pay — including detasseling.
Opponents of the rules across the Farm Belt argue that they are in part an attack on a way of life, one foreign to Beltway bureaucrats and one that should be encouraged in an era of rising childhood obesity rates and increasingly sedentary lifestyles.
“We need more young farmers in Oklahoma, not less. We need more young people who know where their food comes from, not less,” Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin and state Agriculture Secretary Jim Reese said in a Nov. 30 letter to Labor Secretary Hilda L. Solis.
“Any policy that would hinder the opportunities of young Americans to experience life in our agricultural communities is misguided indeed.”
The American Farm Bureau is heading a coalition of more than 70 agriculture organizations that have petitioned the Labor Department in Washington to reconsider what would be the first major rewrite of farm labor standards since the 1970s.
“We have no desire at all to have young teenagers working in jobs that are inappropriate or entail too much risk,” said Bob Stallman, president of the farm bureau.
“Farmers and ranchers are more interested than anyone else in assuring the safety of farming operations, and their right to operate their farms with family members is specifically permitted by Congress. We don’t want to see those rights infringed.”
Rule critics were bolstered last week by farm groups and detasseling companies gathering at state capitols to urge lawmakers to intervene with the Labor Department.
The department is reviewing those laws, which also would cover work with bulls, cows and other farm animals and farm machinery, at the urging of groups such as the Child Labor Coalition and the National Safety Council.
According to a Labor Department statement: “Children employed in agriculture are some of the most vulnerable workers in America. The fatality rate for young agricultural workers is four times greater than that of their peers employed in nonagricultural workplaces.”
The rules would not affect children working on their parents’ farms, but could affect minors who want to work for relatives or hire themselves out for temporary work during the summer. The Labor Department proposal would restrict the range of chores children could do for pay, including driving tractors, branding cattle, working above a certain height and herding livestock on horseback.
Corn detasseling companies that hire the youth work crews are among the most outspoken, saying that keeping teens out of the field and hiring adults, if they can find them, will cause labor costs to spike. Teens earn anywhere from minimum wage to $10 an hour for corn detasseling work in the fields and spend long days in heat and humidity during about a monthlong season.
“At first I thought it was a joke,” Iowa corn farmer Henry Hemminghaus recently said in an interview with KWQC-TV of the Quad Cities. “It would eliminate 40 [percent] to 70 percent of my workforce. It would probably eliminate about 1,200 out of the 2,000 kids I hire.”
The practice of detasseling earned negative publicity this summer when two 14-year-old Illinois girls were electrocuted after stepping into a puddle apparently charged from a nearby irrigation system while working corn crops that were leased by a private farmer to Monsanto Corp.
The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration is investigating, and the girls’ families have filed a lawsuit.
The Labor Department is still evaluating the responses on the proposed rules. Coalitions of agriculture groups, including Nebraska farmers and ranchers, are joining some lawmakers in coming out strongly against the revisions.
“The proposed regulations demonstrate a complete lack of understanding of agriculture and the people whose livelihood stems from the industry,” the Nebraska coalition said in its letter.
Shelly Mayer, executive director of Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin, said in an interview with the Omaha, Neb., World-Herald: “We have raised a generation of ‘bubble-wrap’ babies. Parents dote so much on kids, they practically need an oxygen mask to go outside. And we wonder why they can’t function in society.”
Editorials also are calling for federal authorities to rethink their approach to something they contend has been a safe tradition for years.
“Why should teen workers be denied the right to detassel when young teen football players will be sprinting and colliding at full speed in football practice in the same weather conditions?” argued an editorial published in the Lincoln, Neb., Journal Star newspaper.
“Surely it’s better for teens to be earning a paycheck detasseling in the great outdoors than staying at home on the couch playing video games.”