The Herald Bulletin

March 26, 2011

New liability law aimed at aiding agritourism industry

By Maureen Hayden
CNHI Statehouse Bureau

INDIANAPOLIS — Greg Hochstedler bought 160 acres in rural Henry County six years ago in hopes of turning it into a self-sustaining family farm. But the tough economics of farming soon turned him to another idea: turning the property into a tourism destination for city folk who’d pay money to take a hayride or walk through a maze cut out of a cornfield.

Hochstedler, who has a degree in small-business entrepreneurship and has experience running a business, knew it wouldn’t be easy to launch the venture. But he was surprised by one of the biggest obstacles: the high cost of liability insurance.

Hochstedler feels lucky that he could afford to pay the thousands of dollars he had to dole out to protect himself from potential lawsuits stemming from tourists injuring themselves on the farm.

But he’s also glad about a new law that will make it easier for other farm folks to open their property to the paying public. The Indiana Legislature has passed a bill that protects people engaged in agritourism ventures — from pumpkin patches to wineries — from some legal action.

The bill, signed into law by Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, goes into effect July 1. It significantly reduces the liability for an injury or death that would occur because of the “inherent risk” of the activity.

That’s significant, said Bob Kraft, director of state government relations at the Indiana Farm Bureau, which supported the bill, because farm property and farm activities by their very nature pose some risk.

“It means you can’t sue if you’re walking through the field of a pumpkin patch and trip on a vine, because you know those vines are going to be there,” Kraft said. “It’s the same if you twist your ankle on an apple on the ground if you’re out picking apples in an orchard.”

Hochstedler said the new law doesn’t mean farm owners like him don’t have to be diligent about safety. But it relieves them, he said, from a lot of the anxiety that comes with having “city folks who’ve never been on a farm walking around your property.”

State Rep. Randy Frye, a Republican from Greensburg, authored the House version of the legislation, which got through before the Feb. 22 walkout by House Democrats.

That walkout, still continuing, has shut down legislative business in the House.

Sen. Jean Leising of Oldenburg was a co-author in the Senate.

Frye owns a working farm, and while he’s not engaged in agritourism, he’s empathetic to the struggles of small family farmers.

“Agritourism allows a lot of small farm owners who aren’t making their living off the farm to be able to supplement their income,” said Frye. “They’ve got enough land for a pumpkin patch or a Christmas tree farm that makes them a little extra money. That’s really what the driving force was behind the bill.”

The law gives those folks a break, but it also requires them to post warning signs and place warning notices in any contracts signed by their visitors.

Similar laws have been passed in other states, helping to reduce insurance costs and boost agritourism, Kraft and Frye said.

“It’s a smart idea,” Hochstedler said. “I’m delighted it passed. If we want to grow agritourism in Indiana, this is a law that will help do that.”

Just how much agritourism exists in Indiana is hard to gauge since it covers so much ground. But state tourism officials say its one of the fastest-growing segments of tourism nationally and that Indiana is ripe for more growth because of the close proximity of rural sites to the state’s big cities.

The Indiana State Department of Agriculture now maintains an online directory of farmers’ markets, u-pick farms and other agritourism sites (www.in.gov/ISDA).

Tom Dull, who started Dull’s Christmas Tree Farm in Boone County with his wife, Kerry, back in 1985, applauds the legislation. “It’ll help people like us who’ve taken the full plunge into agritourism. It will help us limit our risk,” Dull said.

“But it’s good for people who want to start on a smaller scale — somebody who wants to put up a roadside vegetable stand or give rides on a horse-drawn wagon or any number of things,” he added. “They’ll feel a little more security knowing this bill is in place and knowing their whole farm isn’t at risk.”

To see the language of House Bill 1133, go to the website of the Indiana General Assembly at www.in.gov/legislative. Go to “Bills & Resolutions,” click on Overview, and enter “1133” in the search box.

Maureen Hayden is statehouse bureau chief for CNHI’s Indiana newspapers. She can be reached at maureen.hayden@indianamediagroup.com.