Fencing around the apple orchard keeps deer out and prevents visitors from pulling over on the side of the road and entering at will.
Photo courtesy of Stanton’s Fuera Farm & Market

by Katie Navarra

When Tim Stanton of Stanton’s Fuera Farms & Market decided to quit the dairy business, he wasn’t ready to give up farming entirely. Instead, he raised hay and vegetables for a farm stand and turned to agritourism as a revenue generator for his new business model. A U-pick pumpkin patch was the first activity he created.

“We soon learned people wanted to do more,” he said.

Since then the Fuera Bush, NY, farm has expanded its offerings to include a 1,000-bale hay maze inside a greenhouse, a corn maze, U-pick strawberries and apples. The market stand sells a variety of farm fresh products.

At the annual Fruit & Vegetable Growers Conference hosted by Cornell Cooperative Extension Eastern New York Commercial Horticulture group, Stanton spoke on the lessons his family has learned about agritourism.

He joked that visitors are treated like cattle, herded in the direction he wants them to go. It may sound crass; however, without directions, guests will wander where they please. Stanton uses unelectrified electric tape to clarify where people are to go and the spaces that are off-limits. Orange construction fence is another option, but less eye appealing. Stanton’s apple orchard is fenced to keep deer at bay, but it’s great for people too. They can’t just get out of their car and into the orchard; they must funnel through the entrance.

“We bring people to the fields on our hay wagons and cage them in. The stairs tip up and lock so no one can get on or off between the tent where we load and the field,” he said. “Our insurance agent thinks it’s a great idea because there’s no risk of someone getting under the tires.”

Although entry fees for U-pick operations have become a controversial conversation, Stanton charges a fee that is refunded with a qualifying purchase. It cuts down on the people who want to come and play in the orchard and eat the apples but not buy anything.

Long before agritourism was trendy, Swartz Dairy & Produce offered on-farm activities to the public. The Castleton, NY, farm was a fully-functioning bottling plant, selling dairy products directly from the farm and through home delivery until the mid-1960s. They continued to milk cows and expanded into U-pick strawberries in the 1970s and added U-pick pumpkins shortly afterward. Today they grow 21 varieties of pumpkins based on requests and trends.

In 2013, the family sold the cattle, but knew they needed an additional revenue stream to complement their commodity crops. They converted a stanchion barn and shop into a farm store, planted a corn maze and continued to offer U-pick strawberries and pumpkins.

“I thought my dad was nuts when he suggested it,” Mike Swartz said. “I thought ‘Who the hell is going to pay to walk through it?’ He proved me wrong.”

At first, they hired a company that specialized in designing and cutting corn mazes. After two days of operation, they realized they had made a big mistake. Even though they consulted with the designer and the family tested the maze prior to opening, no one realized how impractical the layout was.

“It had people exiting at the exact opposite side of the farm store,” he said. “People had to walk all the way back to buy anything.”

Eventually, they realized they could design and cut the maze themselves and focused on traffic flow, ensuring the entry and exit points were strategically located. Stanton uses GPS software to cut two corn mazes in a hedge design. The mazes take about 30 – 60 minutes to walk through, which seems to be around the right length, according to Stanton.

The family offers a combination of day mazes, family friendly night options and select haunted nights. They promote the events largely on social media and via word of mouth. Attendance has grown each year.

Originally, the haunted maze was located farther away from the stand and guests took a wagon ride to and from the maze. The family relocated the haunted maze so it’s closer to the front of the property, and Mike and his dad patrol the property and the maze to ensure no one is causing problems.

When farms invite the public onto their property, there is always some risk. A person could fall off a ladder picking apples. An animal in the petting zoo could nip someone feeding it, or a visitor could twist an ankle walking the field. If that happens, what’s next?

Sarah N. Miller, Esq., with Hodgson Russ explained that the passage of the 2017 New York Safety in Agricultural Tourism Act granted protection to farmers in these situations. However, to access the benefits, farms must follow specific guidelines.

“It doesn’t provide blanket immunity,” she said. “But if the business follows the laws they won’t be held liable.”

Here’s a few rules farms need to follow for protection under the law: Display inherent risk signage on site and off site venues where tickets are sold. The explanation should explain the risk associated with the specific activity offered. If you offer pony rides, the sign should include risks such as falling off, kicking or biting. At an apple orchard the notice should include things like falling off a picking ladder to tripping on uneven ground or being stung by a yellowjacket.

“A farmer can put up Rules of Conduct too and provide further protection for themselves,” she said.

Other tips:

  • Post directional signage and mark areas that are off limits to visitors.
  • Post a Right to Refund message. If a visitor doesn’t want to participate in an activity after reading the inherent risks, the farm must refund them. Failing to do so can revoke protection under the law.
  • Take action to avoid a foreseeable risk. “If you know an animal in your petting zoo has a propensity to bite, do not put them out,” she said. “If you know you have a gate on a hay wagon broken, take it out of rotation. If you know you have a sinkhole, fix it or tape it off. Think safety always.”
  • Work with your insurance carrier and attorney. Have them visit the farm and assess the risks through the eyes of someone who is unfamiliar with the operation.
  • Provide training to employees.

For full guidance, visit tinyurl.com/qnjw9vz.