Guest post: child labor standards and agriculture

This article comes from the local blog as part of a 3-part series on issues related to the Department of Labor’s proposed child labor rules. We offer it up simply for information and discussion, and the views of the article do not necessarily reflect the views of Sustain Mizzou or its members. You can read Part Two here. It is co-authored by Jake Davis and Bryce Oates. Jake and Bryce are both farmers and are co-owners of the Root Cellar Grocery in Downtown Columbia, MO. They are also co-founders of the Missouri Bounty Box, a weekly produce subscription program that links Missouri farmers with local folks seeking good food.

Wynne Oates, son of one of the co-authors of this post, feeding milk to baby meat goats on the family farm in West Missouri. Despite fiery rhetoric to the contrary, this type of activity is 100% legal and allowable under proposed updates to the Child Labor Laws governing agriculture.

As farmers and local food entrepreneurs who have launched this blog to tell stories about our interesting lives in building local food systems in Missouri, we wanted to spend some time explaining our general disgust at Big Agriculture and the institutions that prop it up. We’re talking about you Farm Bureau. You too Commodity Groups (National Cattlemens Beef Association, National Corn Growers Association, etc.). Even you, Land Grant University System. And, yes, you too Farm Press. While there are exceptions to the rule within each group, the take-home lessons of their message, policies and politics have gotten us into this mess of a food system that:

  • Produces cheap food with low nutritional content and quality causing huge problems with diabetes, obesity and heart disease
  • Enriches a small handful of farmers and food processors (the Big Ag Elite) while dismantling opportunities and the safety net of support for low-income and middle class rural people
  • Does serious damage to the water, air and soil of rural environments while being a major source of global greenhouse gas pollution and wildlife habitat destruction.

Through constant and disciplined messaging, this fairly small club has accomplished much of its goals in life and is generally having its way with respect to policies, regulations and market power. They have not rested on their laurels, though. They are willing to drag out the bloody carcass of the straw man any time they have a beef with the progressive responses to their lens (be it from President Obama, Congressional Democrats or anyone else standing in the way of their circular logic narrative).

Take the recent scuffle over the Department of Labor’s proposed rules to change child labor standards in agriculture. The proposed standards make a few very small changes to current law and contain exemptions you could drive a gigantic combine through to get around even those changes. But you would never know the truth about these child labor laws if you read the Farm Press and political hay that is being made.Instead, you’d find a a steady stream of ads, talk radio shows, sign-on letters, social media forwards, etc. that discuss these proposed rules as “the end of rural culture.” To hear their (false) version of the rules, 4H and FFA programs will be shut down. Farm kids won’t be allowed to help with the chores. Farm country will be de-populated by an armed group of thuggish cops that put farmers behind bars for having their children collect eggs in the henhouse like they have for generations.

And while we fully expect to hear the constant drumbeat of this “regulation is just killing agriculture” narrative from the Big Ag Elite (despite the fact that the act of farming itself is virtually regulation-free), we are continually surprised about the fury and venom with which this same message comes out of many within the local food world. Joel Salatin is often put out there in the spotlight as a champion of all things local and natural. But Salatin himself continually speaks and writes that regulation and big government are his greatest enemy (he even wrote a book called, Everything I Want to Do Is Illegal.) The so-called “Food Freedom” movement is aghast at the Food and Drug Administration for trying regulate raw and cultured food products.

These folks are the Tea Party of the agriculture scene, many of them writing glowing endorsements of Ron Paul in his bid for the Presidency. And also like the Tea Party, their notions about politics and policies are informed more by sentiment than fact. They cast their lot with mostly failed individualism as a solution to broad-based social challenges rather than attempting to address the root of the problem (increasing concentration of wealth and power, money-based politics and a lack of adequate safety nets and resources to improve quality-of-life for all people).

This is the context as we see it for the great battle being drawn over child labor standards and agriculture in this election year. We are exploring why many farmers and rural people should re-think their knee-jerk response to the proposed rules (We definitely support the rules). Our next post in the series will explain the realities of the proposed changes and explore the 4H and FFA implications of the rules, as well as documenting many of the facts about the real dangers facing farmers and farmworkers. The final post will contain additional political analysis of the issue from our Progressive Small Town perspective.

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