Agritourism growth sparks concerns over safety, liability

AP News
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Posted: Aug 16, 2015 8:33 PM
Agritourism growth sparks concerns over safety, liability

SOUTH HERO, Vt. (AP) — As more farms open themselves up to visitors for apple picking, hay rides and some extra income, experts are advising owners to take steps to prevent accidents — be they small or fatal.

Farming is one of the more dangerous occupations in the U.S. mostly due to the machinery and equipment, according the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But a growing interest in local food has led to agritourism becoming a big business, with the number of U.S. farms reporting income from such activities rising 42 percent between 2007 and 2012, according to the latest Census of Agriculture.

Adding urbanites, who may not be familiar with hazards such as irrigation ponds or farm equipment that could pique a child's interest, can be a recipe for accidents. So, experts say farmers have to purchase the proper insurance, know where the hazards are and keep tourists away from those areas. Doing so can prevent injuries, lawsuits and notoriety and keep farms in business.

It isn't known how many agritourism-related injuries have occurred in the U.S., said Marsha Salzwedel, an agritourism safety specialist with the National Children's Center for Rural and Agricultural Health and Safety in Marshfield, Wisconsin. Two people were killed last year: A teenager who, along with other riders, was thrown off a hayride trailer into trees in Maine and a 2-year-old girl who was pinned when a van shuttling passengers from a New Jersey farm's harvest festival rolled into another van.

But, Salzwedel said, "the majority of these incidents if not all of them are pretty much preventable."

The first key is assessing the risks, said Brian Schilling of Rutgers' Cooperative Extension in New Brunswick, New Jersey. "If you've grown up on a farm you're sort of blind to a lot of these things," he said, advising owners to have an extension agent, emergency official or insurance agent walk the farm to identify hazards.

The extension also has a safety checklist that reminds farmers to, among other things, designate areas that are closed to the public, train employees to property operate farm machinery, secure and restrict areas that contain chemicals, provide hand-washing or hand-sanitizing stations and have employees assist with parking.

Ron Hackett takes several safety precautions around his business, Hackett's Orchard in South Hero, Vermont, including playground inspections and a Plexiglas guard around its apple-sorting machine. He also transports visitors on a tractor-pulled trailer and has an attendant making sure riders are sitting down and keeping their hands from the side of the trailer.

"You've got to be ever vigilant," said Hackett, who is only one of three people that is allowed to drive the tractor, which is the newest in his fleet.

Being correctly insured is also important, since a regular farm policy does not typically cover an agritourism activity, said Salzwedel, who added she's seen a number of farms end up getting sued over injuries.

"In some incidences, they're able to work through it and they work with the insurance companies if necessary and things go on fine," she said. "In other incidences, it actually will close down the farm."

In last year's hayride accident, a corporation that owns the Harvest Hill Farm property in Mechanic Falls, Maine, has filed for bankruptcy, citing personal injury claims as a liability. The district attorney charged the farm with manslaughter, and brought misdemeanor charges against the driver and a mechanic; all pleaded not guilty last month. Farm owner Peter Bolduc denied knowing about any mechanical problems with the 1979 Jeep that was hauling the wagon.

Visitors can help to prevent injuries, too, by watching their children, making sure that hands are washed after activities involving livestock and following any farm's posted rules.

Opening a farm to the public is not for everyone, so extension agents advise considering the implications first.

"In working with the farmers," said Salzwedel, "a lot of them have plain out told me that you know I just sleep better at night when I know that I've done what I can to make my farm safe."