By DOUG SCHMITZ
DES MOINES, Iowa — The Iowa Supreme Court ruled Feb. 15 that farmers hosting educational tours aren’t safeguarded from personal injury lawsuits under the state’s current recreational use law – a move that may hinder them from holding such events.
“It will be extremely unfortunate if the Iowa Supreme Court decision discourages farmers from opening up their farms for tours and other educational efforts,” Iowa Agriculture Secretary Bill Northey said.
“It is important that farmers reach out to the general public and show them what we are doing on our farms and why. Iowa agriculture has a tremendous story to tell, and it is important we make it easier for farmers to share what they are doing, not more difficult.”
The 5-2 ruling stems from a 2010 case where Kimberly Sallee of Oelwein filed a negligence lawsuit against Matthew and Diana Stewart of Stewartland Holsteins, also in Oelwein. The Stewarts hosted Sallee’s kindergarten class from Sacred Heart School while she was chaperoning during a farm tour on their property.
According to the lawsuit, while Sallee was watching her students, who were permitted by the Stewarts to climb the haystacks, she fell through a hayloft chute that was covered by hay bales. Sallee sustained a broken wrist and ankle in the fall. After Sallee filed in Fayette County Court, Judge Margaret Lingreen threw out Sallee’s claim, saying the state’s current recreational use immunity shielded the Stewarts from such lawsuits. Under a 1967 law, Iowa landowners are protected from most personal liability if they make their private property available for agricultural tours and other recreational events.
But according to a report in The Des Moines Register, “the Iowa Court of Appeals agreed that the landowners were shielded by the recreational law, but said the Stewarts could still be sued based on allegations that they acted improperly in their capacity as tour guides.”
In the 2010 Iowa Farm & Rural Poll, three sets of questions about agritourism were introduced for the first time in the poll’s 30-plus-year history.
“Although less than 1 percent of Iowa farmers currently host entertainment activities like festivals or corn mazes, 34 percent of respondents agree that Iowans should get more involved in agritourism,” said Shannon Latham, vice president of Latham Hi-Tech Seeds in Alexander, which started hosting the Latham Country Fair in the summer of 2010.
“Agritourism is a means to increase farm income and to expand tourism in rural areas, according to the 2010 Farm Poll. And, several leaders in our area couldn’t agree more.”
But despite Iowa’s growing agritourism industry, the ruling may have broad implications on whether farmers will be dissuaded from hosting educational tours on their properties for fear of being sued.
“As farmers, we recognize the importance of visiting with non-farm audiences about what we do,” said Mindy Larsen Poldberg, director of governmental relations at the Iowa Corn Growers Assoc. “It is unfortunate that this chaperone was injured, but it may set a precedence that would influence the open-door policy that helps consumers understand the farm-to-food cycle.”
After the ruling, some landowners aren’t going to be comfortable allowing the public onto their property, said Christina Gruenhagen, government relations counsel for the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation. “It’s important for farmers to share what they do every day to take care of their animals and crops,” she said. “Over 90 percent of Iowa’s land is privately owned, so most recreation takes place on private property.
“Unfortunately, this ruling went beyond just a farm tour situation to narrowly interpret the statute and discourage private property owners from letting people onto their property to hunt, take wildlife photographs, snowmobile or other recreational activities.”