by George Looby, DVM
The term agritourism used to be obscure but now there are few not aware of it. To bring those with a strong interest in the subject up to speed a workshop was held on Aug. 22, 2017 in Charlton, MA. The workshop was hosted by the USDA Veterinary Services and the Departments of Agriculture of Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island.
Agritourism is a potential source of income for a farm operation and is also important as an educational tool. As the percentage of the total population with little or no previous exposure to farms increases this program can be a real eye opener.
It is important for any agricultural enterprise that invites the public to visit to be fully aware of the issues which may surface. The operator/manager is liable for any mishaps that may occur on their property. Even in instances where the public are not invited there may still be a degree of liability. With this reality it is most important to be fully aware of the pitfalls such activities may entail.
Lisa Chase from the Extension Service, University of Vermont spoke about managing the safety risks on agritourism farms. Lisa stressed the need for establishing written safety procedures for each specific activity, including parking, hayrides, food service and animal handling. Off limit areas should be well defined. Informational signs should be everywhere to inform and assist visitors.
Owners should tour their own farm and view it in a detached manner to identify areas to be designated as restricted. She further suggested to have an impartial individual accompany the owner to avoid any personal bias. A log should be maintained with dates of tours and recommended modifications.
As visitors enter a farm the host should give them a realistic view as to what to expect. This might include insects, strange odors, uneven roads and paths, electric fences and animals. Prominent signs should reinforce this talk. Such signs should be informational and educational.
Every member of the farm should receive basic instructions as to how to react to emergencies. A sketch of the farm should be posted in a prominent spot to provide responders with an idea of where to go.
Dr. Valarie Koenig of USDA Veterinary Services addressed the issue of animal health and how it relates to visitors. The greatest threat to visitors are little things; bacteria, parasites and viruses are present even on the best managed of farms so visitors should be made aware of this. Even the healthiest animals may be harboring one of several organisms including E. coli which is a normal inhabitant of the intestinal tract of animals. Other common enteric organisms (causes gastrointestinal disease) include Giardia and Cryptococcosis. Handwashing is the best way for a visitor to avoid potential trouble. Wash stations should be prominently located for easy access.
The topic of biosecurity was covered by Dr. Kimberly Haling of the USDA Veterinary Services. Some potential visitors may be more at risk when exposed to certain animal conditions. Those at risk include children, pregnant women, those over age 65 and those with compromised immune systems. Everyone on the farm is responsible to ensure that those at risk are carefully monitored. All the animals on the farm should be current on their vaccinations and up-to-date on any required testing. As strong as the temptation might be it is best if children refrain from petting farm animals.
Rebecca Soco, a student at the Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine presented some ideas as to how to engage the public to protect themselves and your farm. Rebecca reinforced the idea that the visitor’s safety should be the top priority and the potential risks they may encounter should be explained. Some areas should be for viewing only with barriers placed so visitors cannot get close.
Each state has an important role to play in the agritourism industry. Dr. Scott Marshall, State Veterinarian for Rhode Island said that all animals on display for public viewing are required to be vaccinated for rabies. Those that are not vaccinated should be identified with appropriate signage warning the viewing public of the fact with a double barrier around their enclosure.
Jan Baltrush, an animal care inspector for the USDA APHIS gave attendees an overview of The Animal Welfare Act (AWA). AWA covers most but not all animals and their designated use. Among the facilities regulated by the AWA are research laboratories, intermediate handlers such as kennels and transporters and carriers such as airlines. Exhibitors are another group that is regulated. They include anyone who has animals on display to the public such as privately run zoos and museums and others.
As might be expected, there are exemptions. Those animal activities that are exempt include agricultural animals in agricultural exhibits, animals used for food or fiber, rodeos and others.
For farms considering agritourism it is most important to understand the potential liability aspects. Joe Bonelli of the UConn Extension Staff gave the audience some pointers to avoid problems. First, be sure that coverage is in place. Never assume a homeowner’s policy covers this sort of activity. Insurance agents can help in instances where an individual is unsure of how to proceed. There are questions that must be asked to ensure every possibility is covered. Employers are responsible for the actions of their employees which makes training very important.
Dr. Megin Nichols summarized the multiple factors that contribute to disease outbreaks as the result of animal exposure. Dr. Nichols is the Enteric Zoonosis Team Lead at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Diseases can be transmitted in three primary ways; through eating or accidental swallowing, inhaling or through the skin. With children, the hand to mouth route is the most common. Children under five are the most likely to become ill as the result of a farm tour.