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Despite child labor laws, children still toil in hot-summer fields in Minnesota

When heat indices in the Twin Cities top 100 degrees this week, think of this: Hundreds of thousands of America’s children spend summer doing hard labor in the hot sun.

In Michigan they’re picking blueberries, in Minnesota they could be weeding sugar beets, according to “America Now: Children of the Harvest,” a “Dateline NBC” rerun shown Sunday night but certainly just as compelling now as last summer.

Digging for a glimpse of the situation locally, I discovered Minnesota and other states at least offer the youngest in these families a chance at a better future. Turns out we have here a summer Head Start program for the children of those who harvest our corn, peas, beets and apples. 

“Dateline” paints the plight of an estimated 400,000 children who join their economically struggling parents in farm fields to harvest fruits and vegetables to earn a living. Some migrate around the nation with the harvest season, working 12-hour days. Many miss spring and fall months of schooling in order to work the harvest.  

In one field, a boy pauses to tell an interviewer his spine hurts. In another shot a 10-year-old makes a birthday wish his dad would not have to work so hard.

Shockingly, despite long hours, grueling and dangerous work and exposure to pesticides, U.S. and Minnesota child labor laws allow employment of these youths, with some significant restrictions. U.S. labor laws, for instance, raise minimum ages to 16 or 18 for hazardous agricultural work.    

In Minnesota kids under 14 years of age may be employed as newspaper carriers, actors or models, youth athletic program referees, or in agriculture.

Minnesota law
In Minnesota:

“A minor less than 16 years of age may not work:

•    before 7 a.m. or after 9 p.m. with the exception of a newspaper carrier;
•    for more than 40 hours a week or more than eight hours per 24-hour period, except in agriculture…”

Still, television cameras catch non-compliance around the nation: very young children at work picking produce, weeding, even operating dangerous farm machinery.

The moving television story also mentions programs for youths whose parents toll in the fields.

In Minnesota, one of those is Tri-Valley Opportunity Council, purportedly the longest serving and largest provider of direct services to migrant and seasonal farm workers in the state.  It began in 1971, serving more than 10,000 children since then.

Based in Crookston, but operating in 12 towns across Minnesota — including Monticello, Owatonna, Brooten and Rochester — and one in North Dakota, the Tri-Valley Opportunity Council provides Migrant and Seasonal Head Start and Early Head Start programs for children whose parents work in agriculture.

“Our purpose is to keep the children out of the fields and not working,” says Laurie Coleman, the agency’s Head Start, Child and Family Programs director.

A new life
Plus provide them a head start to a different life.

Last year the agency provided early education to about 1,000 children age six weeks to kindergarten, operating during the summer months and into the fall when harvest season ends.

Coleman will tell you also the success story of Jaime Enrique, now 21, a graduate of the program who now studies international business and political science at the University of Michigan.

The national program provides a range of services also including nutrition, parenting, health, dental, mental health and disability services. Here, most of the money comes from the federal government, with some state funding, Coleman says.   

Lest you think life for migrant families has drastically changed over the year since NBC’s eye-opener, check out the newer “The Harvest/La Cosecha” being shown around the country.

Listen to the plaintive question of a teenage girl: “Is this going to be my entire life?”  I’ll think of her the next time I spoon blueberries on my breakfast cereal.

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Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by Arnie Hillmann on 07/22/2011 - 01:33 pm.

    SO WHAT! I grew up on a farm in SW Minnesota in a house that had no running water and no electricity. At age 8 I was operating a tractor by myself cultivating corn and soybeans and in plowing season did so until midnight and went to school at 8:30 the next morning. It created a work ethic in me that made me stand out the rest of my life and inspired me to run and own several companies and make more money than I can spend. My father was not ruthless or abusive and taught me to “suck it up” and just do it, which I did. I motivated my children along the same lines and they have all done well with my oldest son retiring at age 38 no longer having a need to generate income.

  2. Submitted by Fritz Dahmus on 07/25/2011 - 12:24 pm.

    Arnie Hillmann….I was about to write the same kind of comment.

    Except my story is from my youth as a farm boy working on a farm in North Dakota. Yes, I had no indoor bathroom or TV until the age of 10. We all worked harder before any particular school day than most kids do all year these days. When we moved off the farm, I put up hay to get in shape for football (ages 14-16). It’s called working for a living and keeping the fat off! I am currently 59 years old and in better shape than most kids! Oh by the way…I put myself through college as well….probably because I didn’t want to work hard in the fields all my life. See how that works???

    Quit babying these kids…they will come to expect it.

  3. Submitted by Jim Roth on 07/25/2011 - 12:41 pm.


    I agree with you about the value of hard work. My grandparents were farmers and my father grew up on the farm with no running water or electricity. My father always believed in and stressed the value of hard work.

    My father went on to work for the National Rural Electrification Administration which was largely responsible for bring electricity to rural areas.

    However, there is a difference between growing up on a family farm and being a migrant farmworker. You worked long and hard hours as a young person but were not deprived of educational opportunity. You were able to work and have access to educational opportunity. Migrant farmworker’s children most often do not have access to education without outside assistance.

    This is not to detract from your accomplishments or those of your family.

  4. Submitted by Arnie Hillmann on 07/25/2011 - 02:28 pm.

    Jim Roth

    The greatest event of my youth on the farm was the day we got electricity because of the NREA. Farm life became 25% or more easier overnight, thanks to people like your Dad

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