From petting zoos to pumpkin patches, tasting rooms to hayrides, Idaho farmers have found many ways to beckon visitors to their properties and supplement their incomes.
Starting July 1, those operators will have formal protection against liability if the inherent risks of a farm operation cause injury to a guest. That's when the Idaho Agritourism Promotion Act, signed into law in April, takes effect.
"Safety is our No. 1 concern, but you can't prevent everything," said Jim Lowe, who operates the Farmstead corn maze and fall festival on about 50 acres just off the Eagle Road exit of Interstate 84. Lowe wrote the bill with help from Rep. Darrell Bolz, R-Caldwell.
A misstep in a furrowed field, a nip from a pony or a trip over a pumpkin vine are among the hazards agritourism operations can present, Lowe said.
"That's the 'agri' part," he said. "It's the whole reason why you're coming here - to have that farm experience."
Lowe and his wife, Hillary, farm year-round at several Treasure Valley sites, using the Farmstead corn maze and an ever-growing list of farm-themed attractions as an intense side operation during the six weeks leading up to Halloween.
Randy Feist, a software engineer at Micron, runs a similar business on Meridian's Linder Road with his wife, Sherrie, that offers an array of mazes, games and other activities in September and October.
INJURY OPPORTUNITIES ARE ABUNDANT
Feist said he was happy to see the Legislature pass the agritourism bill, easing his worries about potential lawsuits.
In 10 years running Linder Farms, the Feists have never run into a litigious guest - or even one who caused them to submit a claim on their liability insurance, he said. But opportunities for such situations abound.
"Every year there are some accidents," he said, from a thumb sprained by Linder Farms' mechanical bull to an ankle injured when a boy jumped off a pyramid of straw bales.
"One lady broke her nose" using the pumpkin slingshot, Feist said. "We offered to cover her medical expenses, but she must have taken care of it herself."
A decade of operations without a claim has helped bring the Feists' liability insurance bill down, he said, "but I've had years where I've paid as much as $12,000 for a five- or six-week policy. It's very expensive."
Feist said he hopes the new law's liability protection will lower the cost of insurance further. An increase in agritourism laws across the nation - about 26 were passed before Idaho's -has already helped, Lowe said.
The new law won't protect agritourism operators if an accident is caused by their negligence, and it requires operators to post warnings on their property to inform visitors of the potential risks and the law's protection.
The law also grants farmers a different type of protection, specifying that tourist attractions on a farm do not jeopardize its property-tax status as agricultural land - a designation that carries a lower tax rate than commercial property.
As long as the farm or other agricultural property meets the statutory requirements for agricultural designation, Lowe said, the addition of agritourism will not change that status.
A WAY TO DIVERSIFY
Agritourism ventures give farmers a way to protect themselves against income-killing variations in weather and crop prices, Lowe said.
"It definitely is a part of our income, but it's also a risk-management thing," he said. "It's another way to diversify."
He declined to disclose Farmstead revenues or estimate its share of the family's income, but said thousands of people visit each year. Admission to the Farmstead ranges from $7.95 to $10.95 on weekdays or $10.95 to $13.95 on weekends, varying by the number of attractions included. A season pass costs $29.
"Some years we may break even on the Farmstead, sometimes we may break even on farming, sometimes we might break even on both," Lowe said.
"The beauty of agritourism," he said, is that it can be applied to a wide range of farm and ranch operations, with the attractions tailored to the particular farm or ranch."
Orchards and vineyards that invite the public to their sites also meet the definition and will share in the law's protection.
"It's going to take away some of the worries," said Ron Bitner of Bitner Vineyards, which features a tasting room, a small bed and breakfast and a deck that hosts live music in the Sunny Slope area south of Caldwell.
In response to guest requests, Bitner said, he plans to put trails through his vineyard, but "it has to be at their own risk."
"We've never had an issue, but it's always in the back of your mind," he said. "You don't want to lose your whole livelihood because of one lawsuit."
Janice Schoonover, who runs Western Pleasure Guest Ranch near Sandpoint with her husband, Roley, says the agritourism law is "a great thing" that sounds similar to an existing law that covers horse-based operations such as dude ranches and trail rides.
"We always felt protected by the equine law," she said, "but this could provide broader protection."
The new law covers dude ranches, pony rides and other horse attractions as long as they are conducted on the ranch or farm property, Rep. Bolz said. The older law also applies to trail rides and other equine operations that take place beyond farm boundaries.
PROTECTING A LIFESTYLE
Agritourism is a fast-growing niche that will "help out the economic development of Idaho in some respects," Bolz said.
It also helps educate people about farming and where their food comes from, Lowe said.
"The experience of being connected with our food is just huge right now," he said.
Most people have agriculture as part of their family heritage, he said, but for many it's at least a generation or two removed.
And the income provided by agricultural attractions can help preserve the feasibility of family farming, Schoonover said.
"This is another way to make a ranch successful and pass it on to the next generation," she said. "It protects the lifestyle."
Kristin Rodine: 377-6447