When I was young growing up in Michigan, the family would routinely make trips to the local fruit farm to help pick strawberries and blueberries, volunteering time to round up the berries and take home some fresh treats at the end of the day. It was outdoor time that brought the family and community closer together. This is exactly the kind of community experience I often long for nowadays in a concrete jungle like Washington, D.C., where I’ve lived in a condo building and never even met either of the tenants living just feet away from me next door.

Do communities like the one of my childhood still exist? (Mind you, I’m not THAT old.)

I think so, but this report from ABC News makes me wonder. Apparently all those times my parents schlepped us out to the fruit farm to pick berries, I was actually acting as (gasp!) an exploited slave laborer. Who knew?

ABC News outraged to find children picking berries

Mmmm... illegally picked strawberries

Nearly two years after ABC News cameras uncovered young children toiling away in Michigan’s blueberry fields, federal investigators have found yet another disturbing example of illegal use of child labor in the berry industry.

Three southwest Washington strawberry growers were fined $73,000 last week after the U.S. Department of Labor found children between the ages of six and 11 working in their strawberries fields in June.

While an exemption in the federal child labor law allows 12- and 13-year-olds to work for unlimited hours on large agricultural operations, children under the age of 12 are strictly prohibited from working under similar conditions.

Who ever heard of manual labor for kids under 12?!  Uh, besides everyone I grew up with, the pioneers who built this country for one.  There’s a huge difference between slave labor and a kid wanting to earn a few bucks to put toward a shiny new bike.  Something tells me that the kids mentioned in this ABC story were not chained up and dragged behind a tractor and forced to meet some kind of berry quota before they were allowed a bowl of gruel.

It’s wrong that our society has become so afraid of “child labor” laws that we don’t allow kids to develop their own work ethic at a young age.  And if kids who want to work aren’t allowed to work in the ag industry, they’re pushed out by adults who apparently think picking berries is a lifetime career.

When I was 13 I went to work detasseling corn during the summer seasons.  I wasn’t the only one — every warm-blooded teenager who had dreams of buying their first car when they turned 16 made the muddy treks up and down the rows of corn during those summers.  Now, you’d be hard-pressed to find local teens working in the fields, their positions filled by migrant workers who take cash under the table and work for cheap wages.

I guess now there’s only one thing left to do…

Find myself a good lawyer and sue the pants off my parents for making me pick all those berries without liveble pay and benefits.