New law protects farmers who welcome visitors

Nikki Johanson scoured her Silverdale farm for barbed wire before opening the property to visitors.

She put a double fence around any unruly animals and kept the dog in a pen on busy days.

The Pheasant Fields Farm owner did everything she could think of to make her land safe to visiting families, but Johanson knew there was a possibility someone could get hurt.

"There's always a risk," she said.

A bill signed into law by Gov. Jay Inslee last month could help farmers like Johanson rest easy when welcoming visitors, and encourage more landowners to offer agriculture-based tourism activities.

Senate Bill 5808, which takes effect July 23, protects farmers from liability if someone gets hurt while taking part in an agritourism event on their property. Under the law, an agritourism provider can claim an affirmative defense if they are sued by an injured party.

To be protected, the operator must post a sign explaining that visitors are participating in activities at their own risk. Farmers can still be held liable for injuries if they are found to be "grossly negligent" or fail to warn guests of a dangerous situation.

Patty Graf-Hoke, director of the Visit Kitsap Peninsula tourism bureau, said the law acknowledges the risks inherent in visiting a working farm. Uneven walking surfaces, live animals, and machinery are all part of the landscape, she said.

"The prospect of a possible lawsuit makes it much less attractive to host a family-friendly farm day or conduct educational classes in open fields," Graf-Hoke said.

Scott Hall with the Kitsap Community and Agricultural Alliance said the added liability protection should make agritourism more attractive to producers. But farmers will still have to carry insurance and exercise common sense.

“You do what you can to make sure you’re doing things as safe as you can,” Hall said.

Visit Kitsap and the Agricultural Alliance are among the groups working to promote agritourism in the West Sound region. While popular in more rural counties of the state, only a few Kitsap farms market events for visitors.

“I think it’s going to become bigger,” Hall said.

Pheasant Fields Farm is one of Kitsap's most active agritourism destinations, hosting farm camps, tours, corn mazes and birthday parties. Johanson said the activities help the farm cover its expenses while teaching visitors about agricultural practices and the value of locally-grown food.

She believes the liability protection offered by the state will make more producers feel comfortable welcoming visitors.

"This bill is a huge step in the right direction and I feel strongly that it is a door opener for the development of more agritourism activities for our community," Johanson said.

Mary Ellen Houston at Olalla Valley Vineyard & Winery was also encouraged by the new law, though the language of the bill makes it unclear whether its protections apply to tourism at vineyards.
"It general, it could really help us," Houston said.

Agritourism.bill by Tad Sooter on Scribd

© 2017 KING-TV


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