Recently signed agritourism bill could bolster an already growing industry in Weld, Colorado
June 16, 2014
An already growing industry could get a bit of a boost, thanks to Colorado lawmakers who recently put in place the first law specifically aimed at bolstering Colorado's agritourism.
House Bill 1280, signed into law Friday by Gov. John Hickenlooper, offers new protection for the expanding industry.
That new protection, local producers said, helps with "a major barrier" — liability — for existing agritourism operations wanting to grow and those wanting to get started.
Supported by the 2013 Heritage & Agricultural Strategic Plan, the law limits the liability of farmers and ranchers in activities related to "agricultural recreation activities," or, as redefined in the bill, "agritourism."
It could be a boost to an industry that, in Colorado, already has seen its number of farms that take part in agritourism activities grow from 679 in 2007 to 864 in 2012, according to the most recent U.S. Census of Agriculture, released this year.
On top of offering activities for families and an ag education for urban residents, these agritourism operations, in many cases, have become vital to some producers, particularly smaller ones, who need another source of income at a time when the costs of farming inputs — land, water and labor, for example — make turning a profit tough for farm operations of a certain size, and nearly impossible for them to grow, local farmers say.
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In some cases, agritourism operations — corn mazes, pumpkin patches and other attractions — are started on farms primarily to keep the land profitable and in the family name.
As agritourism has grown, so too, has its support.
HB 1280, sponsored by Rep. Tim Dore, R-Elizabeth, and Sen. Gail Schwartz, D-Snowmass Village, passed 35-0 in the Senate in April after passing 64-0 in the House in March, before being signed into law by Hickenlooper.
Some concerns with HB 1280 were raised a couple months ago, when an analysis by the Colorado Civil Justice League indicated the protections for farms and ranches allowing tourists onto their property could actually increase exposure to lawsuits for working farms and ranches.
However, Colorado Civil Justice League Executive Director Mark Hillman, who also operates a farm on the eastern plains, said this week the language was changed by the time the bill was passed and signed into law, alleviating those concerns.
The law was welcome by those participating in Weld County's growing agritourism industry.
"Liability is certainly one of our biggest concerns each year as we grow, and I know that's also the case for many others in the business," said Glen Fritzler, who operates Fritzler's Corn Maze near LaSalle, which is heading into its 15th year, and now draws tens of thousands of people each fall.
Like others, Fritzler started his corn maze out of desperation after hail storms diminished his yields for multiple years in the late 1990s, and he was approaching hard times.
Through his involvement in national corn maze organizations, Fritzler said he met a fellow corn maze operator who saw a visitor's broken pinky cost his insurance company $100,000, which then increased insurance rates, adding to the already extensive input costs of creating and operating a corn maze.
"It's one of the biggest barriers out there for agritourism operators, so it's good to see our lawmakers look at this issue," said Rebecca Hill with the Colorado State University's Department of Agriculture and Resource Economics.
As Hill pointed out, agritourism isn't catching only the attention of lawmakers these days.
Hill is part of a group of researchers who in April were awarded a $500,000 grant from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture for a three-year study to learn more about agritourism.
Among the focuses will be learning the challenges of the industry for agritourism operators.
"While we don't have survey results yet, we anticipate liability being one of the major barriers," she said.
In addition to helping local farms, Colorado tourism officials see agritourism as a boost to the state's tourism industry in general.
"With the ongoing support of the legislature and our industry partners, tourism and agritourism in Colorado continues to reach the next level of success," Al White, executive director of the Colorado Tourism Office, said in a news release after the signing of the agritourism bill. "While visitors may first think of our world-class skiing or climbing our 14ers when they think Colorado, we're also becoming known for our craft beer, wine and spirits, farmers' markets, farm and ranch stays, U-pick fruit and vegetables, homesteading workshops and more."