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.

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“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.