Teen Farm Labor is Vital in Rural Areas

Photo courtesy of Jeff Heinz/The Globe Gazette

Picking up rocks, baling and detasseling provide the lion’s share of summer employment opportunities for pre-teens and teens in the Upper Midwest.  Such jobs are a boon to the youths’ bank accounts and also help provide them with valuable work experience, plus they help fill a need that farmers and agribusiness owners have to get these jobs done usually within a limited window of time.

As the owner of a family seed business, I’m greatly concerned about the impacts and implications of the U.S. Department of Labor’s proposed changes.  These rules, if enacted, would prohibit youth from working on a farm or ranch that is not directly owned by their parents – you’re not exempt if your family farm is structured as an LLC or incorporated – as farm hands under the age or 16 would be prohibited from working in cultivation or harvesting crops.

More than 100,000 individuals are employed each growing season to detassel hybrid seed corn in Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Missouri, Nebraska, Texas and Washington.  Literally hundreds of thousands of workers are needed at one time because the detasseling season is only two to four weeks long.  The living, breathing nature of corn plants means that crews only have a limited amount of time to get the job done during critical production stages.

Detasseling is a necessity when producing commercial seed corn.  While detasseling machines are used, they don’t remove each and every tassel.  It’s literally a hands-on job to ensure all unwanted tassels are removed, which allows for cross-pollination between designated male and female plants.  Cross-pollination, rather than self-pollination, leads to hybrid vigor and also can be attributed to higher yields needed to feed a rapidly growing world population.

Because detasseling is a such a necessary task and is admittedly hard work, it pays quite well.  Detasslers are paid by experience, ranging from more than minimum wage to $20 per hour for experienced workers.  The national median pay is $9.64 per hour, making it one of the better-paying summer jobs for teenagers.  The thousands of dollars a teen makes during one season goes a long way toward buying designer jeans, gaming systems and filling the gas tank.

What else can kids living in rural communities – yes, even those who live in town – get paid this kind of money for summer employment if they’re not allowed to provide farm labor?  There are only so many lifeguards and grocery store workers needed here.  (Click here to see the HUGE economic impact agriculture has on Franklin County alone.)  Plus, the workforce is limited in rural areas like Franklin County, Iowa, where about 20% of the population is of retirement age.  With such a small pool of applicants, who will supply the necessary labor in these rural areas if teenagers are prohibited from working?

If your family or your business would be impacted by the proposed “child labor” rule changes, please take the time to make your voice heard.  Click here to submit your comments online.  To submit written comments, reference RIN 1235-AA06 in your letter and mail it to:

The Wage and Hour Division
U.S. Department of Labor, Room S-3502
200 Constitution Ave., N.W.
Washington, D.C.  20210