> SOUTHERN INDIANA —
A bill that has passed through the Indiana legislature is making it easier for an industry with roots in Southern Indiana to grow — agritourism.
House Bill 1133, which has been signed into law by Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, goes into effect July 1. It significantly reduces the liability for an injury or death that would occur because of the “inherent risk” of the activity taking place at a location.
Starlight is home to one of the forerunners of the agritourism industry, but Joe Huber III, co-owner and director of Joe Huber’s Family Farm, is unsure what the ultimate effect the bill’s passage might have on his family’s business.
“I certainly look at it as a positive,” he said. “Basically, I guess it’s sharing some of the risk with the people participating in activities on our farm.”
Huber said the number of times the business has needed to use liability coverage have been few and far between.
“It’s not been really a huge issue for us,” he said.
But the bill may have a larger impact for farmers like Greg Hochstedler, who bought 160 acres in rural Henry County six years ago in hopes of turning it into a self-sustaining family farm. The tough economics of farming soon turned him to another idea: turning the property into a tourism destination for city folk who’d pay money to take a hayride or walk through a maze cut out of a cornfield.
Hochstedler, who has a degree in small-business entrepreneurship and experience running a business, knew it wouldn’t be easy to launch the venture. But he was surprised by one of the biggest obstacles: the high cost of liability insurance. Hochstedler said he feels lucky that he could afford to pay the thousands of dollars he had to dole out to protect himself from potential lawsuits stemming from tourists injuring themselves on the farm.
But he’s also glad about the new law that will make it easier for other farm folks to open their property to the paying public. The bill protects people engaged in agritourism ventures — from pumpkin patches to wineries — from some legal action.
That’s significant, said Bob Kraft, director of state government relations at the Indiana Farm Bureau which supported the bill, because farm property and farm activities by their very nature pose some risk.
“It means you can’t sue if you’re walking through the field of a pumpkin patch and trip on a vine, because you know those vines are going to be there,” Kraft said. “It’s the same if you twist your ankle on an apple on the ground if you’re out picking apples in an orchard.”
Hochstedler said the new law doesn’t mean farm owners like him don’t have be diligent about safety. But it relieves them, he said, from a lot of the anxiety that comes with having “city folks who’ve never been on a farm walking around your property.”
Glenn Smith, president of Callistus Smith Agency Inc., in Floyds Knobs, said the inherent risks are common sense in nature, offering up the example of a Christmas tree farm.
“You should watch where you walk so you don’t trip on a stump,” he said.
But the passage of the law doesn’t absolve agritourism businesses from informing their visitors of those risks.
Huber said his family’s business will be required to inform people of the risks when they visit their farm, most of which he also called common-sense issues. When asked if the farm would require its visitors to sign waivers in order to go pick fruits and vegetables, Huber said he hopes it doesn’t come to that, calling it a “logistical nightmare.”
“Hopefully, it might be some kind of sign we might post,” he said.
The law could give farmers a financial break and does require them to post warning signs and place warning notices in any contracts signed by their visitors. Although the logistics for agritourism businesses are still being defined, the benefit afforded to farmers is unmistakable.
State Rep. Randy Frye, a Republican from Greensburg, authored the House version of the legislation, which got through before the Feb. 22 walkout by House Democrats. Sen. Jean Leising of Oldenburg was a co-author in the Senate.
Frye owns a working farm, and while he’s not engaged in agritourism, he’s empathetic to the struggles of small family farmers.
“Agritourism allows a lot of small farm owners who aren’t making their living off the farm to be able supplement their income,” he said. “They’ve got enough land for a pumpkin patch or a Christmas tree farm that makes them a little extra money. That’s really what the driving force was behind the bill.”
Similar laws have been passed in other states, helping to reduce insurance costs and boost agritourism, Kraft and Frye said.
“It’s a smart idea,” Homesteader said. “I’m delighted it passed. If we want to grow agritourism in Indiana, this is a law that will help do that.”
But Smith warns not to expect the changes in premiums to be immediate.
“I don’t think the law will have an immediate impact in [a business] carrying less liability coverage,” he said.
The law’s affect will likely be felt over time through encouraging insurance companies to view the risks as more acceptable, he said. With more companies being willing to take on agritourism businesses there will be more competition in the market, which will eventually lower premiums.
“The key is if there are fewer losses because of entering this law it should lower prices,” Smith said. “It’s not going to be overnight.”
He added that it will also take some time to test the new law as initial legal challenges will help to determine whether or not the law will hold up.
Huber said he hopes the lower costs allow more farmers to branch out into the agritourism business.
“I welcome the competition,” he said. “We definitely have something to offer here. Maybe this will bolster some things and maybe this is a sign the state is really getting behind [agritourism].”
SO YOU KNOW
• Just how much agritourism exists in Indiana is hard to gauge since it covers so much ground. But state tourism officials say its one of the fastest-growing segments of tourism nationally and that Indiana is ripe for more growth because of the proximity of rural sites to the state’s big cities. The Indiana State Department of Agriculture now maintains online directory of farmers’ markets, U-pick farms and other agritourism sites AT www.in.gov/ISDA
ON THE WEB
• To see the language of House Bill 1133, go to the website of the Indiana General Assembly at www.in.gov/legislative. Go to “Bills & Resolutions,” click on Overview, and enter “1133” the search box.
CNHI Statehouse Bureau Chief Maureen Hayden contributed to this story