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Cash Crop – Child Labor on the Farm

July 1, 2018

Children threshing corn during school hours (1915), Library of Congress National Child Labor Committee Collection (Digital ID nclc.00246), Author Hine, Lewis Wickes (PD, life plus 70)

“Agriculture is one of the most dangerous industries in the nation.  Each year, more than 2 million youth under the age of 20 are exposed to farm-related safety hazards.  As a result, a significant number of young people are killed, injured or permanently disabled on farms in the United States.”

-OSHA [1]

About 13.4 million children live in rural America [2].

As a group, rural children have somewhat lower rates of poverty than their urban cousins [3].  The median income of rural households is only slightly less than that of urban households ($52,386 as compared with $54,296).  By comparison, a higher percentage of rural homes are mortgage-free (44% as compared with 32.3%).

However, the Fair Labor Standards Act allows farms to employ children as young as 12 y.o. with the written permission of a parent (or if a parent is employed on the same farm) [4A].

Child Labor on the Farm

The Child Labor Coalition of the National Consumers League estimates there are 300,000 to 400,000 child workers in U.S. agriculture.  The highly lucrative tobacco industry, in particular, benefits from this.

Children of any age can work on the farm of a parent or guardian [4B].  Those 12 y.o. and younger need not be paid minimum wage, but are not permitted to work during the school day.  Those 16 y.o. may work for an unlimited number of hours, even at tasks considered hazardous, like operating a hay baler.

Unfortunately, enforcement of these standards is largely absent.  Violations are not closely monitored and rarely penalized.  Children as young as 8 y.o. and 10 y.o. can be found working beside men in their 30s and 40s.

Serious Symptoms

Tobacco is nowadays harvested mechanically.  Other necessary tasks are still, however, performed manually.  Workers, for instance, remove the buds, flowers, and unwanted shoots from plants by hand, as well as weeding by hand.  Minors under the age of 18 – often the children of migrant workers – may spend all day on such tasks [5].

A landmark study by Human Rights Watch in 2014 found that nearly ¾ of the children interviewed reported “serious symptoms—including nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite, headaches, dizziness, skin rashes, difficulty breathing, and irritation to their eyes and mouths” while working among tobacco plants [6].

Child tobacco workers between 7 y.o. and 17 y.o. were described as “often labor[ing] 50 or 60 hours a week in extreme heat, us[ing] dangerous tools and machinery, lift[ing] heavy loads, and climb[ing] into the rafters of barns several stories tall, risking serious injuries and falls.”

Children are, also, exposed to harsh pesticides despite a 2015 regulation which prohibits that.  Allergic and respiratory problems are common.

A study at Wake Forest University added:

“Youth farmworkers are especially vulnerable to occupational injuries because of their smaller size, lesser strength, and greater surface-to-volume ratio compared with adults; their developing neurological and reproductive systems; and their lack of maturity and experience [7].”

Few receive training.  Many are sexually harassed.

Since migrants routinely move from crop to crop, as a growing season progresses, so do their children.   Child laborers may work on tobacco, cucumbers, blueberries, and sweet potatoes, in rapid succession.

Unseen and Unnoticed

The American Farm Bureau Federation maintains that “Farm and ranch families are more interested than anyone else in assuring the safety of farming operations [8].”

Often, however, the employment of children and enforcement of health standards (or not) rests in the hands of tobacco companies and their subcontractors.  Philip Morris International, for instance, has voluntarily raised the minimum age for its farm workers.

British American Tobacco, the largest publicly traded tobacco company and owner of Reynolds Tobacco, does not officially utilize child labor.  Problems, however, exist in its supply chain.

China National Tobacco, the world’s largest cigarette producer, does not acknowledge a problem and has taken no counter measures.  Abuses are not tracked.

Child laborers go unseen and unnoticed, in service of a cash crop.

Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11: 28).

[1]  US Dept. of Labor, Office of Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), “Youth in Agriculture”,

[2]  America was once a rural nation.  Today, however, only 1 in 5 Americans live in rural areas.  Over 80% of the population is distant from the fields which supply their food, and unfamiliar with the challenges – and moral dilemmas – facing farmers.   See, US Census Bureau, “What Is Rural America?”, 8/17,

[3]  US Census Bureau, “New Census Data Show Differences Between Urban and Rural Populations”, 12/8/16,

[4]  Most American industries closely regulate child labor.  Generally, children must be between 14 y.o. and 16 y.o.  to engage in employment, and work hours are limited.  Farming is, however, the exception.  See, US Dept. of Labor, Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA),  “Youth in Agriculture”,

[5]  The Atlantic, “The Overlooked Children Working America’s Tobacco Fields” by Ariel Ramchandani, 6/21/18,

[6]  Human Rights Watch, “US:  Child Workers in Danger on Tobacco Farms”, 5/14/14,”, 5/14/14,

[7]  National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health, “Work Safety Culture of Youth Farmworkers in North Carolina: A Pilot Study” by Thomas Arcury, et al, 2/15,

[8]  Plows and Politics, “American Farm Bureau Federal Issue Update:  Child Labor”, 2/7/12,


  1. Very informative post Anna. Having lived nearly all of my life around farms and farming operations, and having worked for many years in the feed and grain industry, I am not sure I concur with the
    American Farm Bureau Federation’s assertion that they “are more interested than anyone else in assuring the safety of farming operations”. If they are, and I really do hope that they are, something is being lost in the “want to” and the reality of how farming is actually performed.

    I know of no other industry where safety shortcuts are more prevalent, and I’m drawing on my nearly 30 year career in industrial safety management when I say that. I have seen far too many men who have lost a hand or arm from attempting to clean screw conveyors or combines that were still energized. Slips,trips, and falls are some of the other potential hazards that are faced with regularity and often result in devastating injuries.

    There is a mindset on the farm that shortcuts are an acceptable and expected practice if they will speed up the process, and OSHA has had very little impact on farming safety, of this I am certain. Farming is, for all intents and purposes, one of those industries where the rules do not apply. This mindset has resulted in thousands of young people permanently maimed or killed. Add to this the fact that young children are expected to perform just like an adult, and you have a prescription for disaster.

    Thank you for drawing attention to a very real problem.

  2. Thank you for raising our awareness about this issue Anna. An excellent article. I had no idea.

  3. As I see it, my Dear Anna, India is worse. But that is neither here nor there. Can only say, ‘Maranatha,’ Come, Lord Jesus, and, ‘May Your Kingdom come.’

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  1. Cash Crop – Child Labor on the Farm — A Lawyer’s Prayers – SHOWERS OF BLESSINGS COVENANT HOUSE

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