COLUMBUS — If you have ever picked your own apples, cut down your own Christmas tree, took a school field trip to a local dairy or enjoyed a visit with friends to a vineyard, you have been a part of a growing industry here in Ohio called agritourism.
Debbie Sebolt and her husband Joe run Nickajack Farms in North Lawrence, Ohio, an agritourism venture and family farming operation. They own 120 acres of land and farm an additional 500, growing corn, soybeans and pumpkins and raise a variety of livestock such as sheep, goats, llamas, alpacas and donkeys. The farm offers horseback rides, animal tours and educational classes for children about where their food comes from.
“If we did not do the educational aspect of the farm, just simply growing crops would not have been enough to keep us going on the farm,” she said.
Ohio Rep. Tony Burkley, R-Payne, agrees, and feels agritourism provides additional opportunities to the farm as well. “Farming is not an easy thing to pass down from generation to generation,” said Burkley. “The more you can diversify your operation, the better off (it will be.)”
While the agritourism industry presents an opportunity for diversification and additional income, it also comes with its share of concerns. Some individuals toying with the idea of implementing a “pick-your-own” patch fear backlash or liability if someone got hurt while visiting their farm.
Both the Ohio House and Senate introduced bills earlier this year to remedy this concern and others that abound in discussions of agritourism. Ohio House Bill 80, sponsored by Burkley, passed by the House in May, and companion Senate Bill 75, co-sponsored by Shannon Jones, R-Springboro, and Sen. Bob Peterson, R-Sabina, passed by the Senate in November. Both focus on three key elements to address farmer and public concerns with agritourism.
“There was some lack of clarity as to what agritourism is and what it can be. We were able to help,” said Peterson.
Farmers expressed concerns that defining their land as an agritourism operation would affect their Current Agricultural Use Value (CAUV) status, which values land devoted to commercial agriculture at its current use and keeps the tax bill lower for working farmers.
Both bills allow for farmers to keep their CAUV status if the land being used for agritourism is contiguous to or part of land under common ownership that is otherwise devoted to agricultural use.
With the potential for increased traffic around towns where agritourism is taking place, township trustees often had concerns about traffic patterns, explained Burkley. Producers with agritourism operations, in turn, were concerned with local and county zoning authorities regulating structures and land used in their commercial agriculture operations.
Both bills exempt land and buildings specifically used for commercial agriculture from county and local zoning authorities. It does, however, allow zoning regulations for buildings and structures specifically built or used in agritourism where public health and safety concerns arise.
For example, if someone were to build a barn to be used specifically for parties or wedding receptions, that building would be subject to zoning regulations, said Peterson.
Probably one of the biggest concerns is liability issues. “There were some individuals who shared with me in casual conversation, ‘I wouldn’t mind doing this or that, but I am afraid to let anybody on the farm in fear of them twisting their ankle and suing me,’” said Burkley.
Both bills grant farmers civil liability protection from inherent risks on the farm such as: surface and subsurface conditions; the behavior or actions of wild animals not under control of the agritourism provider; behavior or actions of domestic animals other than vicious or dangerous dogs; ordinary dangers associated with farm structures and equipment; the possibility of contracting an illness from physical contact with animals and the possibility that the participant may act neglectful — not following instructions or failing to exercise reasonable caution.
However, the agritourism provider is not immune from civil liability if the provider has a disregard for the safety of its participants, if the provider purposefully causes harm or their actions constitute criminal conduct and if the provider fails to post signs or direct people away from areas they know to be dangerous.
Safety has always been a No. 1 priority on Nickajack Farms, explained Sebolt. “My philosophy is, if I don’t want my family to do it, I don’t want anyone else’s family doing it.”
Costs for insuring agritourism activities, such as Sebolt’s operation, come with a high price tag, and she is hopeful that the passage of an agritourism bill would help offset those costs.
The House and Senate versions need to be reconciled into a single piece of legislation, which would need to be approved, and passed on to the governor for signing. Both Burkley and Peterson are hopeful legislative action will continue early in 2016.
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