By Rep. Mike Yantachka
Every two years in January a new legislature is sworn in and serves until a new legislature is sworn in two years later. During this time almost a thousand bills are introduced in the House and several hundred in the Senate. Only a hundred or so actually pass in both the House and Senate and get signed into law. Many, however, get incorporated into other bills dealing with similar topics and become part of Vermont’s statutes. Only members of the legislature can introduce bills. However, if the administration proposes legislation, it will go to the committee of jurisdiction and ask the committee to sponsor the bill. Committees also may initiate a bill to set policy, such as the Broadband Bill being developed in my committee, Energy & Technology.
During my 10-year tenure in the Vermont House I have introduced many bills. The language of some made it into other bills, such as the requirement that the money received from the Volkswagen emissions fraud settlement be used to promote electric vehicles. A handful of bills I’ve introduced have gotten passed on their own. Last year I introduced a bill to promote agritourism. It limits the liability of farms engaging in agritourism for mishaps that might occur to visitors. The bill passed in the House but was derailed in the Senate because of the pandemic. I reintroduced the bill again this year hoping for a better outcome.
With less than two percent of Americans living on a farm, the public is becoming more and more removed from farming practices and agricultural production. Consumers are very interested in learning where their food comes from and about the technological advancements behind producing that food. Agritourism provides an excellent opportunity to open meaningful connections between agriculture and the public. The vast majority of farms depend on outside income to stay in business, and any additional revenue from agritourism could significantly increase their economic viability.
Agritourism is a growing business opportunity in Vermont. Some local examples include Shelburne Farms, Philo Ridge Farm and Adam’s Berry Farm in Charlotte, Isham Family Farm in Williston, and Bread & Butter Farm in Shelburne. Tourism is dormant at the moment due to the pandemic, but once we are back to normal operation, Vermont will benefit from its resurgence. Agritourism epitomizes the Vermont brand. It takes advantage of what VT is known for: agriculture, recreation, a pastoral vibe. And it provides another source of income for family farms by showcasing what they do best. However, the risk of a lawsuit keeps many family farms from engaging in agritourism. Visiting a farm exposes the visitor to certain inherent risks of injury such as bee stings, uneven terrain, contamination from touching farm animals, or falling off a hayride. A single incident can result in bankruptcy.
My bill (H.89) provides a reasonable expectation of liability for the farmer. It provides a clear definition of what constitutes agritourism: an interactive or passive activity for recreation, entertainment, or educational purposes, including farming, food production, historical, cultural, pick-your-own, and nature-based activities. It does not include lodging at a farm or shopping at a roadside farm stand. The bill requires the farm to post signs in clearly visible locations warning of the inherent risks of participating in farm activities and to include the warning in any written contracts entered into with the participant. While protecting the farm from liability for inherent risks, it does not absolve the business from injuries resulting from gross negligence.
41 members of the House─Democrats, Republicans Progressives and Independents─co-sponsored the bill and it passed on a unanimous vote before heading to the Senate. If the Senate agrees with the House, Vermont will join 33 other states with similar agritourism laws.