TOLEDO - Farmers who run pumpkin patches, corn mazes and petting zoos say they can’t always stop an aggressive goat from chomping down on a visitor’s hand or prevent someone from stumbling in a field.
That’s why Ohio lawmakers have signed off on legislation shielding farmers with agritourism businesses from being sued when accidents happen.
Supporters of the measure expected to become law once it’s signed by the governor say it’s an acknowledgement that running a business that brings people onto a working farm poses risks not found in most places.
The number of U.S. farms reporting income from agritourism grew by about 40 percent from 2007 to 2012, according to the latest Census of Agriculture.
About half of all states now put limits on liability for agritourism operations, with most being added within the last few years, according to information compiled by the National Agricultural Law Center.
“It is nature,” said Debbie Mihalik, whose family drew 10,000 people - the most it’s ever had - to their corn maze, pumpkin patch, and haunted house last fall in Madison.
“We maintain the paths in the cornfield, do walk-throughs every weekend. But it is a cornfield with dips and puddles when it rains. It can be hazardous,” she said.
Liability claims against agritourism owners, though, appear to be rare. A woman who says she was hurt in a fall at “straw playground” sued the owner of an Illinois corn maze two years ago. That case is pending.
Ohio’s proposal, like others in most states, does not protect farmers from all lawsuits - only inherent risks such as horse kicking or biting a visitor. A farmer who’s aware of a potentially dangerous situation, such as a dilapidated barn that injures someone, could still face trouble.
Ohio Farm Bureau Federation lobbyist Brandon Kern said the hope is giving farmers some liability protection will make it easier to get insurance and keep those costs down.
Rob Leeds, who has pumpkin farm with zip lines, slides and pig races, told state lawmakers his insurance company dropped coverage when people first started visiting the farm in Ostrander. A second insurer did the same after attendance increased.
He said he hears every year from other agritourism operators who have trouble with their insurers.
Almost all operators, he said, spend a lot of time making sure their farm is as safe as possible.
His staff goes through training throughout the year. Visitors who feed the barnyard animals slide the feed down tubes so that their hands don’t get nipped. And there’s no getting inside the fences with the goats.
“You want to give people access to the farm, but you want to keep it safe too,” Leeds said. “Animals are friendly and they want to be up close to people. It’s not that they’re attacking. It’s just they’re animals and that’s the way they act.”
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