WASHINGTON (AP) - Under heavy pressure from farm groups, the Obama administration said Thursday it would drop an unpopular plan to prevent children from doing hazardous work on farms owned by anyone other than their parents.
The Labor Department said it is withdrawing proposed rules that would ban children younger than 16 from using most power-driven farm equipment, including tractors. The rules also would prevent those younger than 18 from working in feed lots, grain bins and stockyards.
While labor officials said their goal was to reduce the fatality rate for child farm workers, the proposal had become a popular political target for Republicans who called it an impractical, heavy-handed regulation that ignored the reality of small farms.
"It's good the Labor Department rethought the ridiculous regulations it was going to stick on farmers and their families," said Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa. "To even propose such regulations defies common sense, and shows a real lack of understanding as to how the family farm works."
The surprise move comes just two months after the Labor Department modified the rule in a bid to satisfy opponents. The agency made it clear it would exempt children who worked on farms owned or operated by their parents, even if the ownership was part of a complex partnership or corporate agreement.
That didn't appease farm groups that complained it would upset traditions in which many children work on farms owned by uncles, grandparents and other relatives to reduce costs and learn how a farm operates. The Labor Department said Thursday it was responding to thousands of comments that expressed concern about the impact of the changes on small family-owned farms.
"The Obama administration is firmly committed to promoting family farmers and respecting the rural way of life, especially the role that parents and other family members play in passing those traditions down through the generations," the agency said in a statement.
Instead, the agency said it would work with rural stakeholders, including the American Farm Bureau Federation, the National Farmers Union and 4-H to develop an educational program to reduce accidents to young workers.
Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., a grain farmer known to till his fields on weekends away from Washington, had come out strongly against the proposed rule. The Democrat continued to criticize the Obama administration rule even after it was tempered earlier this year, saying the Labor Department "clearly didn't get the whole message" from Montana's farmers and ranchers.
Tester, who is in a tough race for re-election, on Thursday praised the decision to withdraw the rule and said he would fight "any measure that threatens that heritage and our rural way of life."
The move is sure to disappoint child safety groups who said the rules represent long-overdue protections for children working for hire in farm communities. Three-quarters of working children under 16 who died of work-related injuries in 2010 were in agriculture, according to the Child Labor Coalition.
Last month, the child advocacy group criticized GOP legislation that would have stopped the Labor Department from issuing the rules.
"They will save lives and preserve the health of farm children so they can grow up to be farmers," said Reid Maki, the CLC coordinator. "The department should implement them as soon as possible."
Associated Press writer Matt Gouras in Helena, Mont., contributed to this report.