Farmers seek legal protection for agritourism

Jan. 29, 2012, 6 a.m. ·

For many farmers, things like corn mazes, farm tours and U-pick operations can be an important source of income. But "agritourism," as it's called, can also create legal headaches.

In Missouri, many farmers are backing a bill in the state legislature that aims to reduce their liability if someone gets hurt visiting the farm.

One of those farmers is Vera Gelder, who owns a small operation with her husband outside of Columbia, Mo. Each summer, thousands of kids descend on Gelder's 11 acres. She shows off a raft of emus, tall birds that look like ostriches.

"They just come out to visit our farm, see our animals and enjoy the noises that go on here and everything," Gelder said.

Kids learn about agriculture and Gelder collects $5 a head. This kind of agritourism helps keep the farm afloat, but bringing people onto the property also brings legal concerns. If someone were to get hurt, Gelder could be sued.

"People don't always realize that animals kick, animals bite, bees sting - all of those things," Gelder said. "Now, you've come to my farm, who's responsible for that, me or you?"

Larry Helms, a farmer in Pulaski County in Missouri, says he gets 25 to 30 percent of his income from things like hay rides and pumpkin patches on his farm.

"Tripping on a pumpkin vine if you're out in a pumpkin patch ..." Helms said. "There's nothing I can do as a farmer, but sometimes things happen."

Helms recently testified before a Missouri House committee on a bill that would protect farmers from being sued if someone does trip on that pumpkin vine, or on a gopher hole - any accident resulting from the "inherent risk" of being on a farm.

State Rep. Don Ruzicka introduced the bill. He's a Republican from Lawrence County.

"Agriculture and tourism (are) our two largest industries in this state, so anything we can do to promote those, bring those two together, (is helpful,)" Ruzicka told the Missouri House.

The measure has its critics, though. Sharon Jones, who is with the Missouri Association of Trial Attorneys, said that the bill isn't precise enough.

"Our concern is really that someone who is not acting responsibly would be able to have immunity through the way the bill was originally written," Jones said.

As in any other industry, there is a myriad of ways farmers could be negligent and endanger their customers.

"The one I like to use is, if you're doing hay rides and you haven't checked the brakes on your tractor in 10 years and somebody gets hurt because the brakes go out, well, obviously you haven't been doing what an ordinary careful person would do," Jones said. "You should be liable in that circumstance."

Those concerns helped doomed the bill the last two legislative sessions. Ruzicka introduced it in 2010 and 2011. Both times it passed the Missouri House, but failed in the Missouri Senate.

Other states already have similar legislation on the books. Kansas law, for example, provides protection as long as farmers register with the state and post warning signs. In Iowa and Nebraska, though, there is no such law on the books.

Nebraska legislators have tried and failed to pass agritourism bills, according to Tim Tabor, who is with the Nebraska Department of Economic Development.

"We've tried to attempt this for several years and it seems to keep hitting roadblocks," Tabor said.

Without this legal protection, he said, insurance costs can put a damper on the industry.

"It seems to be a cost that is somewhat prohibitive for (farmers to) jump into the whole agritourism or ecotourism business," Tabor said.

In Missouri, Ruzicka thinks his bill has a better chance of passing this year. He has altered the language to address some of the concerns raised by the trial lawyers' association.

"If we can address that issue, make it safer, deal with insurance issues, bring people to the farms, sell more crops, it's one of those scenarios: win-win for everybody," Ruzicka said.

As with Kansas' law, this bill would allow farmers to officially register as agritour operators. The Missouri ag department would also promote their businesses.