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Court ruling could force farms to close gates to visitors

Court ruling could force farms to close gates to visitors
Farms in Iowa are almost synonymous with hospitality. Pretty much every farmer I know is more than happy to host visitors, whether they are from a local school, a civic group or from countries half-way around the world.

The visits, farmers know, are a great way to help urban folks get a better feel for today’s agriculture. And visits help urban dwellers to build a connection between a real farmer and the food on their supermarket shelves.

But in Iowa those farm visits are in serious jeopardy, thanks to a recent ruling by the state Supreme Court.

The ruling by Iowa’s top court dramatically reduced any liability protection for landowners who allow visitors on their land to hunt, fish or just learn how the farm works. Unless action is taken in the Iowa Legislature to restore the farm liability protection, legal experts say landowners now have little choice but lock the farm gate and severely restrict visitors.

This is a drastic change from how things have worked for decades in Iowa. Back in the early 1970s, the Iowa Legislature enacted a “recreational use” statue which provided private landowners an incentive to open up their property for recreational purposes. The statute offered landowners limited liability protection, giving them the peace of mind that they could allow visitors on their farms without the fear of a financially-crippling lawsuit.

Agri-tourism spots, such as apple orchards and pumpkin patches, also had liability protection as long as they did not charge a fee for folks to visit.

But the Iowa Supreme Court basically tossed out that protection with its ruling.

The court said that a northeast Iowa dairy farm could not claim liability protection in a suit that was filed by a chaperone injured during a kindergarten field trip. The court ruled the dairy farm, which had been hosting kindergarteners for 25 years, was liable for the injuries because the chaperone was not engaged in an activity specifically covered in the state statute. The activity in question: frolicking in the hayloft.

In its ruling, the court set some pretty high hurdles for landowners to be able to claim recreational liability protection. For example, landowners can be protected only if they open up their land to the general public, basically turning their private land into a quasi-park for anyone who wants to stop by. It also said landowners are only protected if the recreational activity occurs outdoors, not in a barn or shed.

And strangely, the Supreme Court ruled landowners lose liability protection if they act as tour guides on the farm. So, under the court’s logic, farmers are better off letting children and visitors run around the farm unsupervised, instead of guiding them and making sure they stay out of danger.

Iowa farmers who ask visitors to sign waivers won’t have much protection either, legal experts say. The waivers, they say, offer only limited liability from lawsuits filed by adults, while a separate Iowa Supreme Court ruling said waivers signed by a parent for a child’s activities are unenforceable.

So don’t be surprised if you find locked gates at your favorite fishing hole or if your child’s annual field trip to the farm is cancelled this year. Unless lawmakers correct the Supreme Court ruling, Iowa farmers really have little choice but to keep most visitors away.

Written by Dirck Steimel
Dirck is the news services manager for Iowa Farm Bureau