Farm Bureau pushes Assembly for legal protections
The Pennsylvania Farm Bureau is urging the state General Assembly to adopt legislation that would offer commonsense legal protections for farms that invite the public onto their property for “agritourism” activities such as corn mazes, pick-your-own produce, hay rides and more.
During a news conference today at Paulus Mt. Airy Orchards near Dillsburg, York County, farm bureau officials voiced support for House Bill 1348, which would grant farms that offer agritourism activities reasonable protection from lawsuits that arise from circumstances beyond their control. At the same time, farmers would still need to take steps to ensure guest safety.
“Agritourism is a win-win for farmers who want to diversify their businesses and for community members who want to connect with local farms through fun activities,” Rick Ebert, Pennsylvania Farm Bureau president. “But the threat of frivolous lawsuits is a significant barrier for farmers who want to begin or continue inviting the public onto their farms. Farms are natural environments and despite farmers’ best efforts to ensure guest safety, it is impossible to eliminate every hazard. House Bill 1348 would give reasonable protection and peace of mind to farmers who are offering agritourism in a safe manner.”
Ebert was joined at the news conference by state Rep. Barb Gleim, R-Cumberland, the prime sponsor of House Bill 1348; state Rep. Danilo Burgos, D-Philadelphia, a co-sponsor of the bill; and Karen Paulus, owner of Paulus Mt. Airy Orchards, which offers a variety of agritourism activities including a corn maze, pick-your-own apples and pumpkins and kids’ activities.
To receive the protections offered by House Bill 1348, farms would have to warn visitors of potential risks by either having them sign a waiver or printing a disclaimer on a ticket or other material that’s given to visitors. The measure would not give farms a free pass from ensuring guest safety and farms could still be held accountable if they fail to fix or warn patrons of obvious and dangerous safety risks.
Paulus explained that there are certain risks that visitors need to be careful of when coming onto a farm. For example, vines in a pumpkin patch could be a potential tripping hazard and apples on the ground in the orchard may attract wasps.
“We do everything we can to keep you happy and safe,” Paulus said. “But there are certain things that we can’t control. There are inherent risks with coming onto our property… If we do something that is negligent, then we absolutely should be held responsible for that. We’re just looking for protection in cases where there is an incident completely out of our control.”
Over the past decade, agritourism has surged in popularity as the public grows more and more interested in local food and connecting with agriculture. This type of community engagement helps many Pennsylvania farms secure their financial sustainability for generations to come by providing another source of income that is not dependent on often-volatile markets and commodity prices.
“It is evident, as the farming industry struggles to recover from the economic ramifications of a statewide shutdown, state and federal regulations, and mother nature itself, diversification through agritourism activities keeps farmers afloat,” Rep. Gleim said. “House Bill 1348 provides commonsense liability protections from frivolous lawsuits, which allow the farming industry to continue what is already an integral part of Pennsylvania agriculture: interacting directly with consumers and the public in a safe way.”
“This legislation will allow our farmers to increase their incomes and provide for their families,” Rep. Burgos said.
House Bill 1348 has already been approved by the House Agriculture and Rural Affairs Committee and may be considered by the full chamber this month. If passed by the House, the bill would need to be passed by the state Senate and signed by Gov. Tom Wolf to become law. PFB is urging the General Assembly to pass the legislation this fall, before the 2019-2020 session ends and progress on outstanding legislation must start over.
Limiting civil liability for agritourism has been a longtime priority for Pennsylvania farmers and is not related to COVID-19, although the pandemic has underscored the importance of farms being able to diversify.
“Without limits on civil liability for agritourism, farms are risking their futures when they invite the public onto their property,” Ebert said. “In addition, farms engaged in agritourism often have difficulty finding insurance coverage and pay exceptionally high premiums because of the legal risks involved. Some farms have cut back their agritourism offerings and other have been deterred from starting these types of activities because they are concerned about liability. We are calling on members of the General Assembly to adopt these commonsense reforms that will help Pennsylvania farmers be able to continue connect with their communities and grow the Pennsylvania’s economy.