by Elizabeth A. Tomlin
Opening your agricultural doors and inviting the public in to enjoy a day in the country touring your farm, picking their own fruit and vegetables, or other events to promote your farm and agriculture in general may sound like a great way to drum up business.
Did you know if you don’t make special handicap accommodations you can be sued (of course these suits always include attorney’s fees)? According to the Federal Americans with Disabilities Act, access to all programs and services offered to the public must be handicap accessible, which includes, but is not limited to, accommodations for wheel chairs.
This is only one consideration you need to think about when you plan to host special agritourism activities at your farm or ranch.
Many issues concerning obtaining permits and dealing with rules and regulations were addressed in a webinar organized by the University of California Small Farm Program in partnership with FarmsReach, with presenters Karen Giovannini, Sonoma County, CA, UCCE Agricultural Ombudsman, and Tom Purciel, El Dorado County Planning Department.
Giovannini stresses that producers must follow specific steps before inviting the public in to avoid breaking regulations and accumulating fines.
Three “key” ideas were discussed.
First, a business plan must be made.
Giovannini says very simply, “If you fail to plan, then you plan to fail.”
Your business plan should include a list of activities and products you plan to have available, anticipated number of visitors and months of operation, existing water and sewer systems, surrounding land uses, maps of activity area(s), road access and parking facilities, and any land conservation regulations that apply to your farm.
The second important step is to know your zoning and what is, or is not, allowed on your property. Submit complete and thorough applications to your county/municipal planning department and all regulators of your zoning code.
Federal, state and local regulations must be known and followed. For example, Federal regulations would include USDA, Food & Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency. State regulations include state food and agriculture regulations and state public health codes. Local and county regulations will differ from one county to another.
It’s imperative to have a basic understanding of what activities require permits and where you need to go to find out.
Let’s talk about septic. Will your facility meet with regulations concerning septic system design and maintenance if you invite the public in? “Don’t guess,” emphasizes Giovannini. “Know.”
You will need to meet with your county’s planning department and health department to discuss and get permits to proceed with your plan.
Other considerations include tax and business laws, including obtaining a business license and tax identification number.
Think about employees. How many do you plan on having? Workers’ compensation, withholding taxes and labor laws need to conform to laws in your state.
Anything that affects your local DPW, such as extra traffic and road signs, is subject to approval by the agency that regulates the road your establishment is located on.
Local fire agencies and fire prevention codes must be considered. Sprinklers, fire extinguishers and fire escape routes may be required for your plan.
Visitor safety is another aspect to consider. Liability is a huge issue. Accidents happen. Some may involve tractors, wagon rides, traffic accidents or tripping and falling, to name a few.
Food safety and food handling permits need to fit your plan if you are serving food or having food tastings. Food safety certification and a permit from the health department may be required.
Food grown on site requires a different consideration from food accessed off site. Sale of produce or products not grown on site may not be allowed.
Kitchens must be licensed; food handlers may need to have ‘food handler’ cards.
Labeling requirements are necessary.
Sale of non-farm products, such as processed food, hats, t-shirts, art or any non-farm product, may require a permit from both planning and health departments.
Overnight guests, as with bed and breakfast, present other required permits.
Tom Purciel, El Dorado County Planning Department gave advice influencing the future of agritourism through changing or updating laws and regulations to accommodate agritourism and make things easier for farmers and ranchers. He recommends targeting general plan amendments and updating zoning codes and laws, especially the ones affecting agriculture.
“It can be a fairly complicated-looking process,” Purciel said.
“The need for rancher/farmer/citizen involvement is the same, regardless of what jurisdiction you are in,” remarked Purciel. “It is important to be part of the process of affecting change. Start by meeting with local industry professionals in your area that may have similar goals and/or want to solve similar problems (e.g. tourism organizations, farming/ranching groups, etc.). You may find that many others have the same questions/concerns/issues as you do. Next, visit your local planning/zoning department to find out the process for changing or updating local regulations. For example, solving a particular problem may require a zone change, a General Plan (local constitution) amendment, or something else. Once you are familiar with the local process, get involved in each step to make sure new or updated regulations will best meet your needs. Keep in mind that most local processes take time so be patient and keep focused. The results will be worth the work.”
Giovannini agrees, “My advice – it takes a village to make changes. It’s much more effective to have a group of people/organizations work together for change. It’s also more effective to have reasonable solutions and suggestions for change. Also, don’t give up. And follow up.”
Giovannini reminds folks that the squeaky wheel gets the oil. But she also cautions to proceed with patience and a smile.” People are busy and are easily pulled into many directions; help keep the focus on your project by gently reminding them and asking for status updates. Be friendly, patient and understanding. Listen. Use the Golden Rule. Use humor.”
She says that most of this is common sense, but it’s how she gets things done.
Navigating and negotiating permits and regulations key in promoting agritourism
by Elizabeth A. Tomlin