by Elizabeth A. Tomlin

Editor’s note: This is Part 2 of a three-part series on agritourism. Information comes from a six-part webinar by Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE) of Schoharie, Otsego, Sullivan and Ulster Counties, hosted by Delaware County CCE, and sponsored by the Northeast Extension Risk Management Education.

“How risky do you want to go?” asked Mariane Kiraly, Delaware County CCE Senior Resource Educator/ Farm Business Management.

Inviting the public onto your property to tour your agricultural business and participate in farm activities incurs risk. How much responsibility do you need to take if someone gets injured?

Although some states have laws that establish limited liability protection against “frivolous lawsuits” for many agricultural businesses, Kiraly said this is “not blanket immunity.” It does let consumers know they share responsibility when taking part in agritourism ventures and they are required to follow signs and warnings.

“Farms that clearly provide directional signs, instructions and warnings about potential hazards — uneven ground, animals and machinery — are less apt to be liable for injuries,” she said.

Signs must be in place to protect the farm and protect customers. Signage on the property should warn invitees of any dangers, including electric fencing.

“Agritourism does not fall under the ‘Right to Farm Law’ and it is not considered farming,” Kiraly said, “so you can’t use the safe harbor of the ‘Right to Farm Law’ to protect yourself.”

Meeting with town and county officials, obtaining permits and researching and understanding local variances are important steps to take when planning your venture. Laws and regulations will vary by location. Road signs letting folks know where your business is may have to comply with specific regulations. Parking should also be addressed when researching laws.

Noise from your agritourism venture may disturb neighbors. Kiraly reported on a brewery that was closed because of neighbors’ complains. This could have been avoided by communication with neighbors ahead of time. Kiraly advised folks to consider inviting their neighbors to take part in their venture as guests, keeping them in the loop and involved.

Liability can be determined by using the “Reasonable Care Approach,” which requires landowners to use reasonable care in all situations. Types of liability are different in each situation.

The status-equals-duty approach means the duty of the landowner varies according to the status of anyone claiming injury – and their relationship to the landowner at the time of the claimed injury. Status may include trespassers, a licensee (someone licensed and working on the property, such as a contractor or plumber), an invitee (customers, employees, students, interns and any business visitors), a social guest or a recreational user.

Legal obligations include “Duty-of-Care” responsibilities, such as installing warning signs that can be understood by anyone attending your venture. Invitees, especially children, must be provided the highest duty-of-care.

“You have a duty-of-care by putting up that sign – and you could have a breech of duty if you fail on your part regarding your responsibility,” Kiraly said.

Kiraly said to assume customers who attend your event know nothing about farms and nothing about animals – although many times they may think they do. Fencing off hazards such as animals fall under your duty-of-care, and in many cases supervision is a good idea.

Causation may indicate your failure to protect your invitees. Damages must be found to be actual harm for litigation to take place.

Having food trucks come in to serve the invitees can mitigate your risk. People that come to serve food at your venue should be carrying their own insurance. They should be required to show their certificate, just as they are required to do at a farmers market. One million dollars is commonly required. This rule also applies to contractors that may be on your property for other reasons, such as repairing a roof, at the time of your event.

Kiraly said to think of things that can happen, such as employees dropping pumpkins on a customer’s foot or a ladder falling and hitting a customer. Anticipate what can go wrong and make sure your insurance company is on board with that. Communication with your insurance company should be a priority and each time you consider adding a new feature to your venue, your insurance company should be consulted first – not after an accident happens.

Shop around for insurance companies and compare rates to find one most compatible to your venture and budget. “Find a specific insurance company that will cover all risks,” Kiraly advised.

No dogs should be allowed at your venue, unless it is a proven service animal. This is one rule that can mitigate risk.

Several types of insurance and types of business organizations to help manage and share risk were discussed. An LLC (limited liability company) does not require more than one person to form and takes from three to six months to establish.

Waivers are a good way to have invitees understand they are taking risks when they come onto your property and can be a great deal of help if an injury occurs. Waivers should be signed, dated and witnessed. Waivers should be kept and filed, so if an injury is reported at a later date, you will have the waiver for reference.

Kiraly advised having someone come in to walk your venue and look for possible risks that you may have overlooked. Insurance companies may also send in someone to inspect your venture. “Step back and think ‘What’s my liability here?’” Kiraly said.

Managing risks in marketing

Successful marketing is everything! Regardless of what your business is, you must have a market – and agritourism is one business where marketing is slightly different than with other more tangible products.

Some of the agritourism concept is the intangible feeling people get when experiencing the outdoors lifestyle, whether it is navigating the labyrinth of a corn maze or experiencing the sensation of a crisp, late winter day in a maple grove with the smell of maple syrup wafting from the sugar shack.

Your marketing methods need to build a customer base of people who want to return over and over again – and will give you good reviews on social media.

Marketing is identifying what people want and finding a way to produce and sell it to them. Watching and anticipating trends can help with this.

Determine exactly who your targeted customer is. What age? Is it a family venture? Are school groups potential customers? How many customers are you able to accommodate at one time?

Options for advertising and marketing are varied. Kiraly advised working with social media and local media. Invite local press to cover your events, and if possible, be sure to post a press release beforehand.

Set up a Facebook page and ask your customers to make sure they “like” and “follow” your venue on Facebook and other social media sites.

A positive experience posted by a happy customer will reap benefits when others look for what your business is offering. These positive comments are sometimes picked up on sites like Trip Advisor and other agritourism reference sites where potential customers will see them. However, remember that negative comments will also appear. Handling negative comments in person and on social media may seem overwhelming, but you need to be prepared for it.

“Are your customers one-time or are they lifetime?” asked Kiraly. “You really have to focus on the positive, the quality and the localness. The idea is not to promise what you don’t deliver. That can ruin you on social media!”

Create and maintain a website. Stories about your farm help people remember the good time they had there and provide further connection.

When folks visit your venue, make sure they leave an email address. You can send out a newsletter, bulk updates, pictures, coupons and amusing stories about what is going on, keeping them connected – and prompting them to return.

Customers value authenticity. Be sure what you share on your website and social media pages are accurate representations of your venue. Folks love to see real farm life; however, you may not want to share too much information.

Keep a blog and have folks follow your day on the farm. Even when they are a long distance away, they can keep connected.

Be sure to develop a logo and use it. Print it on business cards and anything related to your business. Do you have a unique feature to your business? Maybe you offer a zipline or your farm has the heritage of being in the family for several generations. Maybe you specialize in autumn activities, such as a pumpkin patch. Those things can be reflected in your logo. Once folks begin to recognize your logo they will be more likely to connect with your agritourism venture – and tell others about it.

Make your venue fun and profitable – and put some of that profit back into more marketing.

Kiraly noted that a rule of thumb for beginning agritourism venues is that 10 – 30 percent of gross revenue should be invested in marketing.