Thousands of visitors come to western NC every year, and they love to see the pastoral landscape of our region. These visitors bring with them money to spend on overnight accommodations, souvenirs, and entertainment activities – which farmers can capture through agritourism and agritainment activities. However, with these visitors come risks and issues of liability that we as farmers have to consider before we get in too deep!
Safety & Security
While having visitors to one's farm may be pleasant and increase farm income, growers must be aware there can be several drawbacks. Agritourism providers have experienced problems with trash, vandalism, trespassing, mistreatment of animals, and nuisance complaints. Landowners may also suffer from a loss of privacy, calls at anytime of day or night, and limited security (theft of their home or farm equipment). Here are a few suggestions to help farmers be pro-active to avoid these types of problems:
- Install a separate phone line for an agritourism venture that can be turned off during non-business hours and can prevent late night or family time interruptions;
- Lock the home while visitors are present, as well as sheds and barns that contain equipment. This will help to avoid potential injuries or damage to equipment;
- Build new fences to keep visitors in acceptable areas;
- Display signs to keep people out of certain places;
- Place trash cans in strategic locations to help control litter; and
- Keep animals away from the visitor areas when necessary.
Three types of "dangerous" customers have been recognized.
- One has no common sense;
- The second has no farm experience and may not recognize something as a hazard; and
- The third is one whose curiosity leads him/her to off-limit places.
These customers expect that a certain degree of safety will be provided regardless of their behavior. Therefore, farmers must anticipate things that may cause problems in order to prevent them from occurring.
- Potential nuisances include an unfriendly animal, a ditch, sharp fence edges or barbwire, a rickety fence, or an appealing hayloft. Some items must be removed from visitor areas, such as chemicals or even a chain. A farmer may consider constructing a separate barn to keep the tools, chemicals, and crop equipment.
- Farmers have to get creative to overcome visitors' interference with the day-to-day operations on the farm. Some practices may need to be shifted to different times or days to prevent possible conflict with the visitors.
- Since many visitors do not know how to treat the farm animals, there must be constant instruction to ensure both the safety of the animals and the visitors.
- Visitors may express discomfort with common farm odors. Animal owners may need additional ventilation of farm buildings and to clean up after the animals on a constant basis.
- Some farms may need to take more precautions than others. Installing additional lights to reduce vandalism and theft, hiring a security service to patrol the property, or hiring an additional employee to monitor the customers during busy times may be necessary in some cases.
In every case, visitors should be treated with friendliness and hospitality by the host and/or staff. A perceived negative atmosphere will deter visitors from returning and from making positive recommendations to their friends and families. Hosts should remind visitors to enjoy themselves, to be careful, to ask questions if they have any doubt about a situation, and to be attentive to their surroundings so that no one gets hurt. These friendly reminders from the host should always be accompanied with a SMILE!
In most cases, a farmer's standard comprehensive personal liability policy will not cover claims arising from recreational use. This type of policy typically covers injuries and property damage resulting from farming activities but excludes coverage for other business pursuits. While farming or agricultural activities may not be clearly spelled out in the policies, agritourism is more than likely not considered "farming" by insurers. Contact an insurance agent for more information on coverage and policies:
- Brett Shaffer at Morrow Insurance Company, firstname.lastname@example.org, (828) 694-5195
- Keith Cable at Buncombe Farm Bureau Insurance, email@example.com, (828) 665-8086, (828) 259-3883
- Roy Peterson at Cherokee Farm Bureau Insurance, firstname.lastname@example.org, (828) 837-6785
- Cindy Guinn, Chris Johnson, or Henry Williams at Mitchell Farm Bureau Insurance, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, (828) 688-3745
Therefore, all farmers who consider adding an agritourism venture to their operations need to have a long, very detailed discussion with their insurance agent to ensure that the agent understands exactly what they plan to do and then recommends the right coverage. If the agent says the current policy covers the activity, it is recommended that the landowner get this in writing. In some cases a rider on the farm policy granting additional liability coverage for the particular activity will be sufficient; however, many cases will require an additional policy for general liability. Check out this self-assessment to help you identify possible agritourism risks and ways to reduce your exposure.
In 2005, a Limit Liability Law was created for agritourism farmers in North Carolina (Available at http://www.ncleg.net/Sessions/2005/Bills/House/HTML/H329v6.html.) It is not accurate to believe that the law protects the farmer from lawsuits resulting from visitors' negligence. Contributory negligence was already a defense to a lawsuit. This 2005 law is intended to discourage lawsuits against agritourism operators by making participants aware of the inherent risks of agritourism activities. By posting two signs with the language of the law (in black lettering at least 1-inch tall), farmers are not insulating themselves from liability. However, by taking steps to make the farm and its environs and activities safe and fun, the farmer lessens the possibilities of lawsuits.
Weather-proof, ready-made signs are available through the NC Agritourism Networking Association for $3/each plus $4/shipping for non-members. NC ANA members receive two free signs when they join the association. For more information about NC ANA, visit the NCDA&CS Agritourism website.
These statues also do not prohibit a landowner from being sued. A landowner should develop guidelines and rules for use of the land, but always remember that some people aren't perfect guests. The owner and his/her insurance agent should also survey the farm for risks, take pictures of any risks that have been mitigated, date the file, and keep the file current for added protection. Even if limited liability is granted, visitors can still file suit against the landowner. People can and do sue even when the case has no merit. The lack of merit does not decrease the time and trouble the property owner incurs. In these cases, an insurance company may decide to settle out of court and, subsequently, increase premiums or cancel the policy. On the other hand, if the owner can document the safety measures taken on the farm, the lawsuit could possibly be dismissed.
Other regulations must also be considered before developing an agritourism enterprise.
- For example, what is the zoning on the property? Under current zoning, can the farmer set up a bed and breakfast or a restaurant without asking for a variance? Making a large investment that then can never be used has happened before, so it is important to explore your situation first. Be sure to visit your local city/county planning office.
- If you set up a small road-side stand, can it include crafts as well as farm produce? What about putting in a parking lot? A bathroom? Your city/county planning office will be able to tell you what requirements are necessary.
- The building codes of the county will also come into play as the general public comes onto your farm and you renovate. There are rules for plumbing as well as electrical requirement. Certain fire codes must be followed.
- If any food is to be served or prepared, health and food safety regulations will apply. A small store will need a vendor's license and will be required to collect sales tax.
- A bed and breakfast operation will require a hotel license.
- If animals will be included in the offering as a barnyard animal exhibit, the owner may need to apply for permits.
- Other concerns that may arise include Safe Drinking Water Act which applies if 25 or more people are consuming the water on the farm. Restrooms may fall under the Clean Water Act.
- Accessibility for disabled customers must also be considered. All paths should be as flat and broad as possible and adequate parking for disabled patrons should provide easy access to farm facilities.
For more information on agritourism in North Carolina, contact Martha Glass, Manager of the NC Agritourism Office (firstname.lastname@example.org ) or visit the NCDA Agritourism Division website at http://www.ncagr.com/markets/agritourism .