Farm labor: Children in the fields

Byron Pitts reports on the legal but controversial practice of employing children to work on America's fields

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Casares told Pitts that during the school year, his sons can be boys, but that during the summertime, "They become men, like me. Work out here in the fields."

Together, he says, they can earn $10,000 to $12,000 in a good summer - that's about as much as he makes driving a truck the rest of the year.

"How important is it to your family that you guys work?" Pitts asked Carlos Jr.

"I say it's very important, so we can help 'em all pay the bills and everything," he replied.

And they're helping in the one place that younger kids can: the farm. The minimum age for most industries in America is 16, but in agriculture, children as young as 12 can be hired to do farm work. Outside of school, they can work unlimited hours.

"It's hard. And it breaks my heart for me to have 'em out here like that," Casares said.

"For those who would say, that 13 year old boys and 12 year old boys shouldn't have to do this kinda work...," Pitts remarked.

"Then what would I do? Where would I live, you know? What would I give my kids? What would they wear? What would they eat?" he replied.

"You love farming?" Pitts asked Jeff Darnell, a grower in North Carolina, who like Casares is also under financial strain.

"Yeah, I love farmin'. It's a noble act if you do it right," Darnell said.

"Americans want their fruit and vegetables inexpensive?" Pitts asked.

"As cheap as they can, and they want the best," he replied.

Small farmers like Darnell have not been spared in this economy: during our visit, he took a phone call from his bookkeeper. Behind on his mortgage, Darnell could lose the family farm. He says it's one more reason why he needs abundant, cheap labor to pick his tomato crop.

"If I wanna eat constantly fresh fruit and vegetables, I need to realize there are people that got to produce that stuff, and there are people that are havin' to pick it. They're not on the high side of society, they're not livin' in the Hamptons. But if I don't have them people, you won't have that stuff here," Darnell said.

Darnell hires about 50 farm workers at the peak of the harvest. Most come from Mexico and Central America, like a 16-year-old girl, who has been working in the fields since she was 13.

"In your opinion, should a 12-year-old child be doin' this kind of work, 12, 13, 14-year-old child?" Pitts asked.

"A 14-year-old child, 12 year, I mean, if they're out here helpin' me move an irrigation pipe, I don't see anything wrong with it,' Darnell said.

"But pickin' tomatoes, pickin' strawberries," Pitts remarked.

"I picked when I was 12. Worked for $1 an hour. It was hard. But it didn't hurt me. It not gonna hurt your kids to work. Work gonna help 'em down the road," Darnell said.

Norma Flores Lopez isn't so sure of that. She works for the Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs. It provides training and education to farm workers nationally. She'd like to see children out of the fields through changes in the law.

"We still believe in the value of kids growing up and learning how to be able to earn money. But we feel that at the age of 12, is really, really young, the same way we feel that the age of 12 is really young in any of the other industries," she explained.