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The Pantagraph, David Proeber, Associated Press
In this photo taken Feb. 20, 2012, Joseph Poindexter, 19, steps out of a skid steer while working on Eric Mennenga's farm south of LeRoy, Ill. Poindexter said he enjoys working with heavy equipment on the farm. Mennenga said it is important that teenagers doing farm work are trained to safely do the tasks they are required to perform. He fears that proposed U.S. Department of Labor regulations that would bar children and teens from performing most tasks on a farm will mean fewer teens will follow the same path he did.

LEROY, Ill. — Eric Mennenga said working on his family's farm from an early age convinced him to pursue a career in agriculture.

"I would not trade that experience for anything," said Mennenga, 34, who operates a corn/soybean and cattle farm in the LeRoy area.

But Mennenga fears that proposed U.S. Department of Labor regulations that would bar children and teens from performing most tasks on a farm will mean fewer teens will follow the same path he did.

"If anything, (the proposal) will kill off future farmers," he said.

Recently, the U.S. Department of Labor proposed changes to current child labor regulations that would prohibit teenagers younger than 18 from working at country grain elevators, grain bins, feed lots, stockyards, livestock exchanges and livestock auctions.

Agricultural workers ages 15 to 17 have a risk of fatality that is more than four times greater than the risk for the average teen who works in another industry, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

"Children employed in agriculture are some of the most vulnerable workers in America," Labor Secretary Labor Hilda Solis said when the changes were proposed. "Ensuring their welfare is a priority for the department."

Under the proposed rules, children younger than 16 would be barred from working in cultivation, harvesting and curing of tobacco and also be prohibited from operating nearly all power-driven equipment.

Public outcry from farmers and farm advocates resulted in an exemption for children of any age who are employed on farms owned by their parents.

Now, the department will weigh public feedback and make a decision on whether to adopt the proposal, including the exemption.

Brian Lambert, program coordinator for agriculture and natural resources for the University of Illinois Extension, said farmers across Central Illinois are concerned that young workers would be barred from working on cattle ranches.

Farm equipment is built with additional safety features such as seat belts on tractors that also have roll-over protection features. But farm families must begin implementing safety habits on the farm in order to prevent accidents, Lambert said.

"We know that young people emulate the people they are around every day," he said. "If mom and dad take shortcuts, then youngsters will take shortcuts."

At the Mennenga family farm, safety precautions are part of the training, said Joseph Poindexter of LeRoy, 18, who has worked at Mennenga's farm for the past two years.

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Poindexter began doing basic work and as he mastered simple tasks, he learned more complicated work and eventually began driving machinery, he said.

"It's great working on a farm. It's a chance to make money and a chance to learn about agriculture, which is great because a lot of kids don't know much about agriculture," Poindexter said. "I would like to continue farming as long as possible."

Young workers have the flexibility of working seasonally while they are on break from school, added Mennenga.

"Without (Poindexter), we couldn't do it," he said.

Information from: The Pantagraph, http://www.pantagraph.com