New insurance law could help growing number of tourism-based farms

Posted May 29, 2012, at 3:25 p.m.

When Wendy Sheriff and her husband, Mark, went looking for a lifestyle change six years ago, they moved from Massachusetts to St. Albans and bought a farm. The property had once been the town’s largest maple producer, but had been neglected for years. The couple worked hard to reopen it, reviving and planting 300 apple trees and adding sheep, goats, chickens and geese.

They soon learned the “build it and they will come” model wouldn’t pan out. The summer Avalon Acres Orchard and Farm reopened, “We were like, ‘nobody’s coming’,” Sheriff said.

There’s a fair amount of competition among orchards in this small Somerset County town, she said. The Sheriffs realized quickly they’d need to do more to bring people to their orchard. They began offering public orchard tours, tree pruning and grafting demonstrations and animal-raising information sessions. On Maine Apple Sunday, a statewide event held in the fall, they offer U-pick, cider pressing demonstrations and games for children.

“It’s taken six years of day events like that to draw people in,” she said.

Avalon is one of a growing number of small farms in Maine that are diversifying traditional farm activities with public events. Called agritourism, it includes everything from U-pick strawberries to fall corn mazes and even farm vacations, when guests spend a weekend or longer getting hands-on knowledge of farm activities. For small farms, agritourism’s benefits are twofold: teaching an increasingly curious public how their food is made and providing much-needed supplemental income. For some, agritourism is the only way they can stay afloat.

A 2006 University of Maine Center For Tourism and Outreach survey of more than 400 Maine farms participating in agritourism found that those activities account for 50 percent or more of the income for farmers with incomes of less than $1 million. For farms with less than $50,000 in revenues, that percentage was 62 percent or higher.

Those farmers’ efforts got a boost recently with the passage of a bill aimed at reducing farms’ liability when they host the public. An Act to Promote Agricultural Activity in Maine by Limiting the Liability for Agritourism Activities was sponsored by Rep. Aaron Libby, R-Waterboro, on the behalf of a constituent. Libby’s family runs Libby & Sons U-Pick in Limerick. Gov. Paul LePage signed the bill into law in April.

Similar to provisions for recreational industries such as skiing and snowmobiling, the law says there are inherent risks to being on a farm and reduces the farmer’s liability if, say, someone slips in cow manure or steps in a gopher hole. Farmers aren’t liable for property damages or other damages as long as participants are notified of the risks, through signage or by having them sign a waiver. The goal of the law is to make it easier for farmers to offer public events and reduce their insurance rates.

Keith Harris, owner of Pumpkin Valley Farm in Dayton, asked Libby to submit the bill after learning about a similar law passed in North Carolina. His farm has operated a corn maze for the last 10 years, grows pumpkins and raises animals. In the fall, the farm has up to 15 employees.

“It gives agritourism operators a sense of relief,” he said of the bill. “A lot of people want to get back to the farm roots, but they don’t always realize there’s an inherent risk to visiting a farm.”

He said he doesn’t know of many people getting hurt on farms, but the law will improve farmers’ ability to get affordable liability insurance. He cited a case in Pennsylvania a few years ago when a car low to the ground went over a recently hayed field used for parking and caught fire, damaging other vehicles as well. The farm had to pay out.

“Collectively, insurance companies … are reluctant to write policies for agritourism venues,” he said. “The hope is that the premiums won’t be as exorbitant as in the past.”

According to Harris, liability insurance depends on an establishment’s revenues and can range from $1,000 to $10,000 annually. He said he has talked to farmers in Maine and other states who have operated without liability insurance because of the expense, which he said is “extremely risky.”

Farmers will still need liability policies, and they won’t be protected if the damage or injury is a result of neglect, Harris says.

Events draw growing interest

It’s difficult to confirm how many farms in Maine participate in agritourism since they don’t need to register with the state — only farms that operate farm stands need permits. The UMaine survey found that at least 766 farms voluntarily included themselves in a database of agritourism farms maintained by the Maine Department of Agriculture. Today, the department’s Get Real Maine website lists 586 farms with some agritourism offerings, including farm stands or stores, petting zoos and pick-your-own.

There are a few statewide agritourism events: Maine Maple Sunday held in March, Maine Open Farm Day held in July and Great Maine Apple Sunday held in October. According to the DOA, about 101 farms participated in Open Farm Day last year, and so far 95 are signed up this year. About 120 participated in Maine Maple Sunday this year, which is similar to the numbers in years past.

The UMaine survey found that agritourism sales in 2005 contributed $28.3 million, or 43 percent, of all sales at agritourism farms. That’s 5.1 percent of the state’s overall farm sales that year. Indirect economic benefit was $12.6 million. Nearly half the farms planned to expand their operations in the next five years, and 48 percent also had a long-term interest in developing new agritourism enterprises. Sixty-two percent said agritourism increased their profits, while 25 percent said it was their sole source of income. And 29 percent said insurance availability was their major obstacle, second only to finding the time.

Jon Olson, executive secretary of the Maine Farm Bureau, says agritourism operations are ideal in southern Maine, where farms are closer to population centers. He has seen the number of farms participating in agritourism increase over the last five years, mainly for economic reasons.

He said he urged the bureau’s 2,000 members to lobby for the liability bill. He cited a Maine case in which a person was stung by a bee while picking apples and sued the farmer, leading to an out-of-court settlement. He said the bill could make more insurance companies willing to underwrite the risks of agritourism, leading to increased competition for farms and lower rates.

According to Chris Condon, CEO of United Insurance, about five insurance companies are offering farm insurance in Maine. He said his company, which has 17 locations around the state, writes the most, ranging from large commercial to small hobby farms. He said that for most small farms, the bulk of insurance costs comes from property insurance for the farmers’ homes, barns and equipment. Liability insurance for small farms also must cover the farmer as an individual and as a business person. He said a 10 percent savings on liability insurance as a result of this bill would be considered a large savings, but might amount to less than $100 a year for some farms. “But every little bit helps,” he said.

Condon says the law likely won’t attract new insurers to Maine, but will “help prevent a carrier from leaving the state.

“I’m pleased the Legislature was willing to look into this type of litigation, and am glad they came up with a bill that would further protect farmers and encourage business development in the state,” he said. “It sends the right message.”

Farmers building the business

Lyle Merrifield of Merrifield Farm says crowds at his maple sugar house in Gorham have grown from 400 people 13 years ago to 3,000 people in the last couple of years. Some sugar houses make nearly 100 percent of their annual incomes on Maine Maple Sunday. Opening to the public is crucial for any serious maple producer, he said. The number of out-of-state visitors also has been increasing.

“We really don’t have to do a lot of extra advertising — people remember it, and it’s in a season when there’s not a lot else going on,” he said.

Maine Maple Sunday doesn’t just affect the communities with open sugar houses. Merrifield says he has to buy syrup made in other parts of Maine to make enough product for visitors, giving producers in northern Maine a boost.

Besides Maple Sunday, he opens up his sugar house for field trips for children and senior citizens, and he hopes to add bus tours throughout the year.

Back at Avalon Orchards, the Sheriffs are making plans to expand their agritourism operations. They’re building a cider house and want to start maple sugaring. Wendy Sheriff — who also works as a bus driver — said they’re considering building yurts to rent out to people who want to work on the farm, or stay there when they’re snowmobiling. “It’s a matter of making ourselves accessible and available.”

They’re also already planning for their second harvest festival, on Columbus Day weekend. Wendy Sheriff said last year’s inaugural festival included horse plowing and sawing demonstrations, sheep shearing, beekeeping, ax throwing and other agricultural activities. The event drew upward of 150 people and the proceeds from the $5 admission went to the local grange.

This year, they’ll add milking demonstrations, and the money likely will benefit another organization.

“It wasn’t a huge profitable day, but that wasn’t the point,” she said. “It draws people in, it gives back and it improves our business.” People who enjoy themselves at the festival are more likely to return to pick apples or buy other products and tell others about their experience.

“It’s the kind of stuff we want to continue doing, giving back to the community and providing people with an education — people want to know where their food comes from.”

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