Agritourism safety lesson stressed at conference

AFP Correspondent

AUGUSTA (Feb. 15, 2015) — Some of the ways many farmers are attempting to supplement their income involves bringing customers onto their property.
Whether it’s pick-your-own, retail market or agritourism, farms are welcoming more people and must be aware of the potential consequences, Brian Schilling of Rutgers Cooperative Extension told an audience at the NOFA-NJ Winter Conference.
Stephen Komar of the Sussex County Agricultural Extension discussed the same topic at the Nature Conservancy’s “Farms, Forests and Rivers: Sustaining Our Way of Life” program at the Sussex County Fairgrounds on Wednesday, Jan. 28.
“When you go to agritourism from the traditional, you have to talk to your insurance company,” Schilling said.
He showed a slide of a not-unfamiliar site in New Jersey: a farm surrounded by suburban sprawl. “Is this a threat or an opportunity?” he asked, noting it isn’t just isolated sprawl. Within 100 miles of downtown Princeton live one-tenth of the population of the United States.
Komar was more blunt about New Jersey’s role: “People look at New Jersey and all they know is Newark. That makes us unique with lots of potential customers.”
“People are getting more interested in where their food comes from,” he added.
Having pick-your-own strawberries and peas may seem a far cry from having festivals with pony rides and bouncy houses, but both bring people onto the farm.
There are inherent liabilities to bringing anyone onto the farm. Schilling pointed out many people today are generations removed from family farms. They aren’t familiar with the operations as are the people who own and work on the farm. “Everything the farmer does is new and different for most of the 8 million people in the state.”
In addition, sometimes they don’t follow instructions and some visitors have been known to steal or vandalize. Unfortunately, some have also been known to commit fraud, to pretend to get hurt. As ridiculous as it seems to farmers, some people believe they have money because they have land.
Komar noted farmers must decide if they need tourism as a supplement to their income or as the largest share. They also need to decide how elaborate they should be, just sticking to pick-your-own or building a corn maze or sunflower maze.
In short, farmers have to weigh the pros and cons of bringing people onto the farm.
Komar outlined some of the “pros.”
“Lots of people with expendable incomes,” he said, “and some who want to bring their families back to their family farming roots.”
Agritourism can also bring revenue into the community as people visit farms then make other stops in the area.
Dan Hall, owner of the Chatterbox Drive-In in Augusta, confirmed that.
“Chatterbox benefits from pumpkin picking and Christmas tree searches,” he said at the Nature Conservancy event, which he catered. “There is a low impact on the environment but a big impact on the economy.”
Tammy Horsfield, president of the Sussex County Chamber of Commerce, noted agritourism can be beneficial to local crafters, gas stations and restaurants. She said many venues advertise local farms for their mutual benefit.
“Selling local products helps conserve our heritage,” she added.
If a farmer choses to go with agritourism, he or she needs to embark on a program to reduce exposure of visitors to farm risks, respond to adverse incidents and manage legal liability. The appropriate legal structure insulates direct marketing and agritourism from the farmer’s personal liability. The staff at the State Agricultural Development Board is helpful with any questions.
Farmers must write a farm safety management plan, which doesn’t have to be elaborate, Schilling said. He also said employees have to be the eyes and ears of the farmer. They all have to be able to stay in touch, which is easy with cell phones, although many farmers don’t allow their teenage farm hands to carry their phones.
Schilling also recommended routine safety inspections, especially having someone who isn’t always on the farm walk through, possibly emergency personnel. And, keep a record of all inspections.
Traffic and parking are always concerns, especially since the infrastructure around farms may not be the best.
Sanitation is another issue when many people are coming to the farm, especially with a petting zoo or other areas where children have contact with animals.
Someone has to be on hand to inform visitors of animal behavior. Another precaution is to have areas where children or the elderly can cool off on a particularly hot day.
As with every business, farms must be safe from fire. Smoke detectors and careful storage of flammable material is essential, Schilling said. The cornfield to be used for a corn maze should also be planted later so the stalks don’t dry out.
Schilling also pointed out the farmer should post the rules up front and to also post warning signs to provide a layer of liability protection.
Farmers with additional questions should consult their county ag board, he said.