If you run any kind of agritourism operation this time of year, whether that be a corn maze, a pumpkin patch, a Halloween event or something else, you’re likely welcoming lots of folks to your farm who aren’t normally present. In addition, if you have a petting zoo or a barn full of livestock, it’s possible you’re also welcoming the potential for disease. 

At the recent International Workshop for Agritourism, experts covered how to not only protect your visitors but your animals as well. “Balance Increased Marketing Exposure with Decreased Disease Exposure: Protecting Animals While Promoting Sales” was presented by Carol Delaney, a livestock specialist in the Animal Health Program with the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry (DACF), and Anne Trenholm, agriculture promotions coordinator with the Maine DACF. 

“Visitors love contact with animals,” Delaney said. The key is to get them to follow some healthy habits while doing so. The goal is to decrease the risk of transmitting disease to your livestock, between farms and even from animals to humans. 

Diseases of note today can be transmitted fairly easily. African swine fever (not yet an issue in the U.S.) and foot-and-mouth disease can be conveyed via footwear, clothing and meat; highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) and rabbit hemorrhagic disease via footwear, clothing and hands; and hoof rot and internal parasites can come from footwear, vehicles and trailers. 

Delaney recommended using simple steps to mitigate the risk of transmission. Create a farm zone map protecting high-risk areas – where do you want people to go or not to go? Be sure to set aside a neutral ground for parking. Place signs indicating contact and access information and add latches and locked gates to keep visitors in the right places. Have a mandatory visitor log with recent animal contact disclosure (within the last five days). 

Importantly, have visitors wash their hands before coming in (to protect your farm) and after visiting (for the safety of others). Decide if you’re going to provide shoe washes or covers or set aside boots specifically for visitors to wear. 

Footwear is a big deal, as many issues can be moved around that way. If you have a small group stopping by, a shoe wash and disinfectant may be enough. With a larger group, it’s probably easier to provide disposable shoe covers. If you’re hosting a farm stay or run an Airbnb, provide them with boots or overshoes. 

Delaney also suggested staying informed of disease issues. The World Organization for Animal Health (woah.org) is a useful resource for this. 

Protecting animals while promoting sales

Offering a chance to interact with animals on your farm can be a great way to draw visitors in – but it can also potentially spread disease. Learn how to protect yourself and your livestock.

Messaging & Communication 

Trenholm explained why messaging and communications about animal health matters. First, it protects your farm assets. Next, being consistent and transparent with your safety guidelines means visitors don’t have to guess about the importance of health and biosecurity. It also creates agricultural awareness, helping people understand the value of your farm and its purpose. 

“Use a team approach. This is not just a priority of the farmer,” Trenholm said. “Use simple and accessible language.” 

How to get the word out? Public digital material such as websites and promotional messaging outline the message. Specific, logistical tracking through event registration and real-time messaging helps remind visitors about schedules, proper attire and more. 

She noted this year’s Maine Open Farm Day as a success story for sharing information with a lot of people. The website provided host farm resources and an e-newsletter with more information. 

Print material, including news articles and directional signage, were mentioned as being important too. You can never provide enough information. 

Manage Expectations 

Adding to the topic was Catherine Gensler, a graduate research assistant at North Carolina State University. 

“Humans really want those high-value activities” where they can get up close and personal with animals. She listed examples like paint a pony, animal kissing booths and even just shared space (which could range from indoor goat yoga to using pastures for endurance races). 

“Manage expectations on your website or through social media before their visit,” Gensler said. Tell would-be visitors exactly what they can and cannot do with your livestock – and be sure there is someone supervising animal interactions on the farm. 

Remember as well that the longer a group of people spends time with animals, the higher the risk of disease transmission. Create protocols to stay focused on safety.

by Courtney Llewellyn