Agritourism Risk Tops Concerns at Lawmaker Tour
By Tom Venesky
Insurance costs are a major headache for agritourism operations, farmer Chris Maylath told local lawmakers this week.
Tuesday’s farm tour at Maylath Farm & Orchard was organized by the Luzerne County Farm Bureau.
Maylath raises produce and grass-fed beef, and runs a fall agritourism program that includes a corn maze, pumpkin patch and hay rides.
The agritainment business is booming — Maylath recently expanded his parking area from 1 acre to 5 — but liability has become a major hurdle.
“We’ve even had claims for tick bites,” he said. “One year kids were throwing corn and one got hit in the eye with a cob. I called the insurance company just to let them know, and the company called the parents to start settling. There wasn’t even a claim filed. How do you stop that?”
Maylath thinks his insurance costs are high in part because not many insurers offer coverage for agritourism ventures.
A bill in the state Senate would protect farm owners from lawsuits when no party is at fault for the injury or damages. Farmers would still be liable if they are grossly negligent.
About half of U.S. states have laws that shift the assumption of risk from the operator to the participant, according to Peggy Hall, an ag law specialist at Ohio State University.
“We’ve heard about these issues,” said Senate Majority Whip John Gordner, R-Berwick. “Agritourism is a huge help to so many farmers, and it’s also a benefit to the public from an educational standpoint.”
Rep. Eddie Day Pashinski, D-Wilkes-Barre, minority-party chairman of the House Agriculture and Rural Affairs Committee, offered to organize a meeting between legislators, insurance companies and trial lawyers to find a solution.
“We need to get a fair price for agritourism insurance and make sure it’s balanced so the business is protected and the customer isn’t taken advantage of,” he said.
Another big vulnerability for Maylath is uninsurable crops, such as pumpkins.
If the crop fails, the farmer comes up empty even though the fertilizer and chemical companies need to get paid.
“I’m a schoolteacher off the farm, and my goal was to get out at some point and come back to the farm,” Maylath said. “The problem is agriculture is such a gamble.”
Pashinski floated the idea of a state fund to aid farmers in bad years.
“Every business has some form of financial backup,” Pashinski said. “The difference between profit and loss management on a farm is so tight, the state has to help them stay in business during a difficult year.”
Pashinski hasn’t introduced or even drafted a bill to the effect, but he did suggest the program could be funded by a fee paid by whomever is buying a product from a farmer.
The money could be used to fund low-interest loans or grants to farmers.
During the tour, farmers also said they’d like more information about grant offerings, improvements to deer control programs, and more USDA-inspected meat processors to serve direct-marketing farms.
Several farmers said they would be interesting in growing hemp but aren’t sure it makes sense yet.
“There are no processing facilities here,” said Keith Hilliard, the county Farm Bureau president. “You grow the crop, but where is it going?”
Pashinski said the ag committee has been in contact with several processors interested in locating in Pennsylvania, but the businesses are still waiting on federal approval.
The county Farm Bureau was encouraged by officials interested in the farm tour, and is planning future tours to keep the dialogue going.
“We have people in office willing to help us,” said Martin Smith, the county Farm Bureau vice president.