By Hardy Jackson
The other day, I got a notice from the Florida Farm Bureau that the U.S. Department of Labor was about to issue a new bunch of rules and regulations that would tell farmers what young folks under the age of 16 can and cannot do on the farm. Checking these out I found that most of the things my Daddy had me doing on our farm when I was that age are now considered by your government and mine to be dangerous to kids.
Where, I thought, was the Labor Department when I needed it?
I did not grow up on a farm, I grew up with one.
I came from a long line of people who farmed on the side.
We never made our living farming; however farming allowed us to do things like eat beef and send kids to college.
Farming also put me to work.
Back from the war and defeating Hitler, Daddy bought 100 acres about 12 miles from town. Most of it was cut-over timberland and swamp, but there were three sizable plots that would pass for pasture and one field where corn or hay could be grown if Daddy got a mind to.
So, we set to work repairing fences and getting ready for the cows, which soon arrived. That was when I became a part-time farm boy.
And manual laborer.
I am certain that if you had asked my father he would have eloquently gone on about the nobility of hard work and how he wanted to make sure that I got a good dose before I went out into the world. However, I am equally certain that the cagy old capitalist saw the economic benefit from labor that was “free” and trainable, which was what I was. So it followed that early on, he involved me in just about every aspect of his agricultural operation that my age and size would allow.
I was not entirely happy about this. I would have much rather spent my after-school afternoons and Saturdays in town with my friends, but the farm came first.
I got into farming bit by bit. I began shucking and shelling corn, feeding calves, and helping round up what we called, with no sense of irony, our “herd” – a collection of no more than 30 range cows and “Shorty,” the bull we shared with our neighbor whose “herd” was of similar size.
“Shorty,” as I recall, seemed the most contented of animals.
As I grew, so did my responsibilities. Before I could legally drive I was behind the wheel of the farm truck and even the tractor, though it would be a while before Daddy would trust me to plow anything planted in a row. Over time I cut and baled hay, rounded up and penned cows, roped, inoculated, and emasculated to the point that I felt like a farmer, even if I knew I wasn’t.
I also came to understand, that I was part of a larger enterprise, one as ancient as farming itself. I was there, helping, when calves were born, brought to weight, loaded up, taken to the stock yard, and sold. Or loaded up, taken to the “cold storage plant,” where they were transformed into beef and packed away neatly into the locker we rented.
I knew that my reward would come Sunday when there would be steak or roast on the table. Later I learned that when my tuition was due, the money those calves brought would be taken out of savings and turned into education.
It was work, hard work, but there was also an element of fun – like the time Daddy let some calves get a bit big for regular rounding up so he suggested that I get some of the football players (I was about 16 then and an aspiring linebacker) to come out for a calf-roping. When the day was done the calves had the better of the boys, not that it did the calves any good, in the long run.
And there was the afternoon when cleaning out a corn crib uncovered a warren of rodent nests, so we armed ourselves with sturdy sticks and embarked on a rat killing that filled a wash-tub with the slain.
Ah, the good times.
And now they are threatened.
Now, thanks to your government and mine, boys like I once was will be free to play with their friends instead of being forced into the farm labor market.
Better late than never I suppose.
Then I read the fine print and there it was – “parental exemptions.”
Yessir, on farms like ours a parent can get a child exempted from these child liberating rules.
And my Daddy would have.
You can bet the farm on that.
Harvey H. (“Hardy”) Jackson is Eminent Scholar in History at Jacksonville State University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.