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It’s hard to believe that we are two working weeks away from “crossover.” Crossover is the day by which all bills must be voted out of their policy committees in order to be considered by the other body (in our case, the Senate) without an exemption from the rules. Needless to say, the heat is on to keep things moving. Bills requiring attention from the money committees (Appropriations and Ways and Means) get an extra week to be voted out of those committees to be considered.

Typically, crossover is the Friday of the week following Town Meeting week and that is the case this year as well, since we will be taking Town Meeting week “off.” I put quotation marks around the word because it is rare when we actually have “down time.”

This year, due to the pandemic, we will not be visiting our constituent towns, which is a sadness to me, but it is critical that we observe the safety precautions we have grown so used to. Many of our towns are having informational meetings on Zoom and voting by Australian Ballot in order to keep people safe. I will miss seeing my constituents in person and sharing the potluck lunch in Windham but look forward to a time in the future when we can all get together. Meanwhile, I encourage people to reach out to me if they have questions, concerns, or ideas.

This week, House Agriculture and Forestry passed H.89 out of committee and reported it for second reading on the Floor. H.89 is an act relating to limiting liability for agritourism. Third reading will be next Tuesday, and we expect passage then.

One of the major reasons we passed H.89 is that we are aware of the fact that many farms have been struggling in recent years due to low milk prices and increased grain and hay costs as a result of the drought. Farmers have been encouraged to diversify their businesses to include what we refer to as agritourism activities such as corn mazes, pick-your-own crops, burger nights with music, etc. The actual definition included in the bill is “an interactive or passive activity that is carried out for recreational, entertainment, or educational purposes on a farm including farming, food production, historical, cultural, pick-your-own, and nature-based activities.” It does not include “lodging at a farm or shopping at a roadside farm stand or operation exclusively devoted to the sale of merchandise or food at retail.” Lodging and farm stands are not included because they are subject to other regulations and standards.

One of the concerns for farmers, however, has been the risk that they open themselves up to and potential liability. There is liability insurance available and farms are insured, but this additional coverage might be too expensive given the return these activities might bring. H.89 provides immunity for agritourism hosts from liability for injury or death of a participant resulting from inherent risks of the activity.

What is inherent risk in this context? It “means any danger or condition that is an integral part of, or arises from, an agritourism activity.” This includes “the propensity of a wild animal or domestic animal to behave in ways that may result in injury or death to persons on or near” those animals;” “a hazard such as a surface or subsurface condition;” “a natural condition of land, vegetation, or waters;” “the ordinary dangers of structures or equipment used in farming;” and “the potential of a participant to act in a negligent way that may contribute to injury or death to the participant or others, such as failing to follow safety procedures or failing to act with reasonable caution while engaging in an agritourism activity.”

This does not mean that farmers don’t need to have insurance, but it may make that insurance a little less expensive. It also doesn’t mean that a person who is injured while participating in an agritourism activity doesn’t have a remedy if the injury is the result of something other than the inherent risks of harm from that activity.

We join more than 30 other states that provide similar liability limitations for agritourism activities and bring this in alignment with other Vermont sectors like equine activities, skiing, and recreational activities.

In order to be protected by this legislation, agritourism hosts are required to post and maintain a clearly visible sign “at or near the entrance to each agritourism activity in black letters at least one inch in height” containing the following warning notice: “WARNING: Under Vermont law, an agritourism host is not liable for the injury or death of a participant in an agritourism activity resulting from the inherent risk of the agritourism activity. Inherent risks include the risk of animals, weather, land conditions, and the potential for you as a participant to act in a negligent way that may contribute to your own injury or death. You are assuming the risk of participating in this agritourism activity.” It should be very clear that if you don’t have the signs posted, you are not protected by this law. We were very proud that one of our new members reported the bill and that it passed second reading unanimously!

Last year, due to the pandemic, a very similar bill got through the House on a strong voice vote but ended up dying on the wall of Senate Judiciary. Hopefully, this year it will make it through the entire process and be signed by the governor.

Last Tuesday, I spent 45 minutes on my computer signing up for a COVID-19 vaccine. It was slightly frustrating because I would choose a date and answer a bunch of questions only to find that all of the slots for that day and that location were not available. That repeated itself as I chose other dates. Rather than give me the next date with appointments available, I had to go through the whole process of verifying who I was and answering all of the questions again. Then the location I was hoping for wasn’t available (could it be completely booked?) so I chose a location twice the distance but somewhere that I frequently shop so I could do other things at the same time. I also chose a date a few days out with the hope that by the time I filled out all the questions, all of the times wouldn’t have been taken.

I share this, not as a complaint, but as a tip for those who haven’t signed up already. Be patient and flexible and prepare to spend a little time on the computer or phone. I am very thankful to be getting the vaccine on March 8 and look forward to more people in my orbit being vaccinated. I know that it doesn’t mean that we won’t have to wear masks, we will, but it will take a little of the apprehension out of life. Who knows? Maybe by next January we will actually be back in Montpelier!

State Rep. Carolyn Partridge, D-Windham-3, welcomes emails at cpartridge@leg.state.vt.us. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of the Brattleboro Reformer.

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