Mike Isham, a fifth-generation farmer, offers a host of public attractions at his farm in Williston — calves to pet, chicks to chase, sunflower and corn mazes, and free wagon rides.
"I try to make it very inviting to kids," he said, noting that more than 50 school groups visit each year. He has to be alert for potential hazards, he said. "Kids climbing on things is what scares me," he told members of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Isham came to the Statehouse Wednesday to support a bill that would grant immunity from lawsuits to agritourism operations such as his.
Committee members agreed that agritourism is good for farmers and the public. But Senate Judiciary Committee chair Dick Sears (D-Bennington) told the bill's advocates: "We need to be convinced we need to give you immunity."
Vera Simon-Nobes, a farm-based education network coordinator at Shelburne Farms, said that 26 other states have immunity laws protecting farms that open themselves to the public. Many Vermont farmers are interested in inviting people to their farms, she said, but added that some worry about their liability.
“The bill you are discussing today is critical for supporting farmers,” said Lisa Chase, of the Tourism Research Center at the University of Vermont Extension, who telephoned her comments in. She couldn’t think of any lawsuits that had occurred in Vermont, but mentioned one over a hayride accident in Maine.
“People are concerned about lawsuits whether they should be or not,” Chase said. “I think this bill would be helpful at putting farmers at ease.”
Beth Kennett, owner of Liberty Hill Farm & Inn in Rochester, said she has welcomed guests to her dairy farm for 32 years. Recently, however, an insurance agent suggested that she shouldn’t mention on her website that the public could hike or ski or snowshoe on her land, nor should she advertise that guests would be able to watch her cook. Insurers are worried about farm liability, she said.
Christopher Maley, trial lawyers' spokesman
Christopher Maley, chair of the legislative committee of the Vermont Association for Justice, which represents 200 trial attorneys, said he was unaware of any lawsuit against farmers who invited the public to activities on their farms. “Is this a solution looking for a problem?” he asked. He said he worried victims of negligence would lose recourse if lawmakers granted agritourism immunity.