Op-Ed: Freedom to farm

Regulations hinder hiring of young workers.


Back in the early 1980’s, I was a high school student working on a local farm moving irrigation pipe and driving farm equipment. I was and still am very grateful for the opportunity to work on the farm and be trusted as a minor to do adult work.  

And work we did.  

At age fifteen, I was earning $2.52/hour after taxes and my paycheck in July was nearly $1,200.  We never worked less than 11 hours/day, and we took one day off every two weeks.  

It was hard work and I loved it. I loved the camaraderie of the team, being out in the cool morning air and seeing the sun come up as our first irrigation lines filled with water.  It was good honest work and we were proud of what we accomplished each day.  

When I started my own farm three years ago, I brought those values and experiences with me.  

One of my goals was to “pay it forward” and provide employment to local high school students. What I didn’t realize is that the regulatory environment of today is not what it used to be.

Firstly, child safety in the workplace has become a regulatory priority.  Farm work can be very dangerous, especially when heavy equipment is involved. I still remember the horror stories we were told about people who were injured or killed on farm machinery.

During the four years I worked on the farm, no one got hurt or killed on a tractor and we never read a product safety manual. Maybe we just got lucky. Or maybe the farmer’s instruction to “be careful” was delivered with enough seriousness that we took it seriously too. Regardless, formal tractor safety training is a requirement now and I think that’s a good change given the risks involved.  

However, I also think the overall safety pendulum has swung too far to the cautious side.  

For example, minors can work on the farm only after a detailed work activity profile has been filled out, submitted, and approved by the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industry (BOLI).  Part of that profile includes a list of all tools and equipment the employee will be using.  

To be in OSHA compliance, each piece of equipment must have a formal safety training plan developed and implemented.  That requirement applies to simple tools like a cordless screw gun.

It’s not the regulations that I object to per se — it’s the implementation.  If the staff at BOLI and OSHA were tasked with developing and distributing a screw gun safety program, I’d still be burdened with the cost of delivering the training, but at least I (and every other farmer) wouldn’t have to spend time researching and developing such a training program from scratch.  

It’s regulations like this that cause business owners to scream about the cost of compliance and how it kills jobs.

Did I create a training program for screw guns and every other tool in the shop?  No.  I don’t have time for that.  I scaled back the job such that minors don’t get to drive equipment or use power tools of any kind on my farm. They still get to work, but they aren’t learning the skills or gaining the hands-on experience they need and they aren’t doing all the work I need done.

My second regulatory shock arrived when I went shopping for workers’ compensation insurance.

The State Accident Insurance Fund (SAIF) quoted me $1,800/year for one part-time high school student who would do manual labor such as fill water tanks and shovel feed into buckets.  My agent explained that the rate was high because I was a new employer with no risk history and I raise hogs, which are considered to be large animals and dangerous.  

I tried, but was unable to scale back or limit the job duties in exchange for a lower rate. What if I made sure the student was never in the pen with hogs?  

No difference. What if I moved the hogs to a different property and the student never went to that property?  

No difference. Despite being told that SAIF always had the best rates, I eventually found a carrier who wrote me a policy for $879/year.  Then they conducted a mid-year audit and found that my employee had actually worked fewer hours than originally estimated, demanded another $256 to reach the “policy minimum premium.”  

When all was said and done, my student who earned $10/hr cost me nearly $20/hr after I paid for insurance, payroll, and taxes.    

How are farmers supposed to train the next generation under these conditions?  I hear people say, “just pay them under the table,” but farming is already difficult enough without adding legal trouble into the mix.  

Oregon is a “right to farm” state, and that legislation is helpful but doesn’t deal with safety and insurance regulation.

 We need cost reduction in terms of regulatory time, money, and complexity so we can get back to farming and create jobs. It’s the right thing to do for Oregon’s rural economy and the young people who want to work in it.

Freedom to farm is not too much to ask.  

Matt Alford

Matt Alford is the owner of  Elkhorn Farm & Forge. He is also an outdoor enthusiast, hunter and angler. Alford contributes a monthly column to Oregon Business.

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2 comments

  • Kevin Southern
    Kevin Southern Thursday, 02 March 2017 07:26 Comment Link

    Great article and perspective. Thanks!

  • Lisa Anderson
    Lisa Anderson Wednesday, 01 March 2017 17:14 Comment Link

    Amen to that. From helicopter parents to helmets, elbow pads, and knee pads when riding a trike, to almost laughable "safety" instructions on every consumer product we have gone way too far toward wrapping everyone in cotton wool at birth and unwrapping them at age 21.

    I grew up on a farm and I also hired out to local farmers. Girls weren't asked to move sprinkler pipe so we mostly did field work, picking, pulling weeds (rye in wheat fields), as well as taking care of livestock. Of course there was the potential for danger but I don't know of anyone who was injured. I have to wonder what SAIF thinks about the county fair where 4Hers are showing cattle, hogs, sheep and goats, not to mention 1000 lb horses.

    No wonder our economy has gone from farm/ranch, forest products and fishing to food carts and selling hand thrown pots at the Saturday market. These were well paid, living wage and often union jobs. But between the environmentalists and the regulators who probably never shoveled manure or bucked hay, we have made it impossible to continue in these traditional fields....literally and figuratively.

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