Few settings speak to the American way of life quite like the family farm, where children have long been expected to contribute to the collective well-being by learning with their hands the tools and skills of a trade that settled the prairie.

But despite the iconic status, small farms are also just that — farms, with serious dangers unique to any other business. The nature of farming means heavy machinery, blades and chemicals are part of life. And while virtually every American industry has undergone rapid changes in child labor rules over the past century, the small family farm — which are generally exempt from Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations — are a unique holdout. Here, amid tractors and combines ramping up for this harvest season, boys and girls learn the family business, risks and all.

It is a sizable population.

The National Children’s Center for Rural Health and Safety estimates about 893,000 youth lived on farms in 2014, and 51 percent worked on their farm. More than 265,600 nonresident youth were hired in agriculture in 2014. Accidents happen in all workplaces, but from 2001 to 2015, 48 percent of all fatal injuries to young workers occurred in agriculture.

Learning on the job begins at a young age, and while many families say​ great attention is given to proper instruction, the fact is, farming is as dangerous an occupation as any, and the given that children should participate is weighed against the very hard nature of the work, requiring respect for machine and nature.

Related

“Most family farms, at least the way we grew up and other farmers that I know that are smaller farmers, they do not necessarily go through that formal training,” ​said University of Illinois Extension specialist Robert “Chip” Petrea. “A lot of it (training) is modeling, like, ‘Watch me’ and this is what happens when I do this, and do not do that.’ But it’s not formal in the sense where that person is there with others and there is research to suggest that being with their peers and hearing it from there, there’s this peer pressure where it’s like, ‘OK, we should all be doing this thing.’ ”

Grant Noland, who farms on about 6,000 acres around the Decatur area with his family, was raised on his family farm and learned safety procedures early, he said. Noland has small children. His youngest, at 2 years old, is fascinated with the farm. Like most parents, Noland wants to encourage his child’s interest.

“We try to engage them in what we are doing. The challenge is, how do you provide them the opportunity to be involved,” he said. “There is a value at teaching them at a young age.”​

'There's a lot of care'

Family farms make up 99 percent of America's 2.1 million farms, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and are responsible for 89 percent of agricultural production. The USDA defines family farms ones with as gross cash farm income of $350,000 or less and the majority of the business is owned by the operator and his or her relatives.

Serenity Fields Farm in rural Dalton City is a 10-acre “hobby farm,” as owners Brian Pinkston and Julie Lauper describe it. It plays host to summer camps and visits from kids who attend the family's church and others who are served by Webster-Cantrell Hall, where Pinkston is a counselor. Its purpose is to provide a chance to learn where food comes from, meet farm animals, and learn to love the great outdoors, as well as provide a haven for the family and making a dream come true for California native Lauper, who always wanted to live on a farm.

But it's also a working farm, with crops, chickens, sheep, alpacas and about 30 calves a year. The family also owns a farm near Assumption where they raise cattle. The couple's own children are hands-on participants. Azrielle, 12, sells Az's Eggscellent Eggs. Sage, 15, and Jasper, 10, help out when other kids visit and, along with eldest Cassandra, 18, assist with the many chores that go with farm life.

“They do all the farm chores as far as feeding, bedding, and keeping their stalls clean and at the end of the season, we have to muck out the barns,” Lauper said. “They do herding, when we get a new herd of cattle, helping get them in the barn. They use 4-wheelers for that. And riding horses, just being around and riding horses. I know that there's a lot of care and safety awareness that goes into that.”

For this farm family, knowing their kids, and what their skills and knowledge consist of, is how the adults determine what the youngsters are ready to handle, Lauper said. All four have been on the farm for most of their lives and the work is second nature to them.

Still, injuries happen. Nationwide, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention counted 11,942 reported youth injuries on farms in 2014, less than half the 29,227 that were reported in 2001. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health reported 0.63 deaths per 100,000 in 2015, compared to 2.57 in 2001.

The CDC said such injuries might include violent contact with animals or other people, contact with objects, falls or during transportation. Others could include bodily reaction/exertion, exposure to substances/environments, fires/explosions, and other/unknown events.

Of the leading sources of fatalities among all youth, 25 percent involved machinery, 17 percent involved motor vehicles, including ATVs, and 16 percent were drownings according to the National Children’s Center for Rural Health and Safety.

“The accepted figures in the ag safety world are that about 100 children die in ag-related incidents each year, and about 12,000 are injured,” said Scott Heiberg, heath communications manager for the National Farm Medicine Center, in an email.

Heiberg​ credited the decline in injuries to leadership and funding by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health; research that guides injury-prevention interventions and policies; donations from the private sector to organizations for community-based safety programs; a willingness of farm owners and parents to discard unsafe traditions; and the work of his group in establishing voluntary guidelines.

Changing views are a key factor.

Gary Coffey, an Ashmore farmer, started his children on the farm young. At the age of 3 or 4, his children would be learning to drive a tractor, albeit on their father's lap. He said he only let them ride around in a tractor with a cab in those early years as they learned the controls and safeguards.

Coffey said he stressed often to his children the respect the machinery they used demands.

"Maybe I over thought stuff once in a while, but it didn't matter," Coffey said. "We were going to stress it, and overthink it and overdo it to teach our kids to be safe."

Laying the rules out clearly is vital, said Amy Rademaker, farm safety specialist at Carle Foundation Hospital in Urbana, who grew up on a family farm in Moweaqua.​

“When I take my kids back to the farm, we have to think about all the things we did,” she said. “We knew the rules and what was safe, but we take it for granted. We have to make sure our kids have those ground rules laid out. It's a great place to play but things can go bad very quickly, and if it goes awry, it's not worth it.”​

No training required

Petrea said that even if a family farms 400 or 600 acres, if they have fewer than 10 employees, they’re not required by OSHA to have a specific training program.

Petrea was seriously injured in a hay baler accident on the family farm in 1978 in Iuka, Illinois, causing both of his legs be amputated. He continued to farm until 1987 when he moved to Champaign-Urbana, where he earned his teaching certificate.

Petrea, who earned his Ph.D. in agricultural education in 1997, is currently a client manager with AgrAbility, whose mission is to enhance quality of life for farmers, ranchers, and other agricultural workers with disabilities. He became client manager in 2009 and is based at the U of I.

“Speaking as a safety specialist who sees these numbers and children who are killed on farms or injured on farms, I think there are a lot good work that is being done on educating farmers as to the cognitive development of children at certain ages of when they can do things with supervision and when they can do it without supervision,” Petrea said.

It's more important than ever to invite people to visit farms, to learn where their food comes from and increase that agriculture literacy that is no longer a given, Rademaker said. Even young people who have grown up on farms may not always be aware that a younger sibling, for example, may not have the same awareness of potential hazards that they do, and should always remember to keep an eye out for them.

Related

Before deciding what is safe and what is not, when allowing children to help with farm work, parents can check cultivatesafety.org/work, which provides checklists for questions to ask when considering if someone is ready for almost any specific task. There are guidelines for family members, for young people a farmer wants to hire, for community-based agriculture such as community gardens, precautions for young people working outdoors, plus information on the benefits of farm work and how to train young people.

“I try to remind teens, because teens want to impress and do things quickly and efficiently and want to have somebody pleased with what they're doing, but at the end of the day, the employer wants to make sure they understand and they're safe,” she said. “I encourage high school youth to ask questions if you don't understand. This is not not the time to figure it out yourself. Ask. Be sure you're trained by an adult, not another high school kid.”

​Cory Ritter, who operates a farm on about 2,000 acres of land in Blue Mound, takes the same approach with stressing safety, while encouraging all the natural curiosity that could help his children consider carrying on in the family business.

Ritter said he and his two daughters, who are in the third and fourth grade, have lots of conversations about the work that he does on the farm. They've learned about farming since they were young, he said, and have spent plenty of time riding together in the farm's tractor.

Ritter said he loves spending that kind of quality time with his daughters, and hopes that they would eventually show the same zeal for farming that he does. But it's not something to be forced, he said. As someone who grew up on a farm himself, Ritter said he understands how important the family can be when it comes to keeping farms successful and sustainable.

"If they want to go off and do something that's not in this field, I'm fine with that," Ritter said. "I just want them to be happy in life. If that comes from being a part of a farm operation, that's wonderful. If not, I've got no regrets."​

Contact John Reidy at (217) 421-6973. Follow him on Twitter: @jsreidy2099