UC Davis meetings reveals conflicts surrounding agritourism

TW: abilism

Californian Assemblymember Mariko Yamada along with several other assembleymembers presided over an informational hearing about agricultural tourism at UC Davis yesterday, with testimony provided by university staff, local farmers, and county officials. Shermain Hardesty, a university cooperative extension specialist, opened the meeting with an explanation of how “agritourism” could help create ties between farmers and other Californians. Specifically, she expressed a hope that urban residents could participate in agritourism in order to gain an “appreciation of what a farmer is going through to produce these crops and the food for them.”

olive trees
(An olive grove and agritourism destination in Oak Glen, in Southern California, from here.)

Later speakers and public comments supported the possibility of agritourism strengthening relationships between agricultural workers and others, but also expressed how agritourism created or worsened disagreements within rural communities. Penny Leff, an agritourism coordinator with UC Davis, was the immediately following speaker, who spoke almost exclusively to how agritourism businesses often struggle with existing regulations. She drew attention to a 2009 survey of 332 agritourism operations, whose owners pointed to “regulations and legal constraints” as their main obstacle to running their existing businesses.

More specifically, she noted that zoning laws and building codes are rarely written with agritourism in mind. She explained that many farmers and ranchers stand to benefit from new legal definitions which would “include some of the low-impact visitor services as a part of their operation”. These zoning and coding laws and regulations are the outcome of “each county’s planning department legitimately trying to protect agriculture.” Their narrow definition of that, however, has produced “strict zoning regulations that prohibit a lot.”

Liability laws and insurance policies are similarly designed for different industries, according to Leff. She pointed to a few states where an agritourism-specific liability law has been passed which “allows a farmer or rancher to usually register somewhere, post a sign that the farmer or rancher is not liable for things that happen out of their control.” Within California, Leff noted that similar provisions exist at the county level in California in Butte, Sacramento, and El Dorado counties particularly.

One local farmer, Chris Turkovich, spoke about how contradictory and confusing regulations made it difficult for his family’s farm to upgrade and improve its facilities with energy efficient and environmentally friendly products and processes. He noted that those outdated policies are “disincentivizing younger, newer, and smaller farmers, because of the burden and overhead cost to getting projects like these off the ground”. That sentiment that many younger farmers in particular are interested in better state and county support for agritourism was later echoed by other members of the public that came forward to speak.

Supporting agritourism in typically rural areas was discussed as not only requiring a revisiting of zoning, coding, and liability standards, but improving and expanding rural roads. Noelle Cremmers, a director at the California Farm Bureau Federation, explained that agritourism carries with it the risk of allowing tourism to come into rural communities and either impact them negatively or stretch their services beyond their limits. Cremmers explained, “If you have a three-acre parcel and you are having weddings and you regularly have a significant amount of traffic, that could impact your neighbor.”

Michelle Stephens, the “farmbudsman” for both Yolo and Solano counties, likewise echoed that point about agritourism stressing underinvested rural roads. She explained, “a less discussed component of agritourism is the rural roadways” which are “often the only thoroughfares that lead to the farms, and are commonly cited by neighbors as unsafe and a reason not to allow agritourism activities in rural areas.” Stephens additionally called for more positions that like hers to be created, to guide farmers through regulations. She also argued, however, for a critical approach towards rethinking how agricultural and rural businesses could comply with regulations written with urban businesses in mind.

Assemblymember Brian Dahle, one of the other assembleymembers in attendance, expressed appreciation for Stephens testimony, but seemed to politely disagree. He explained, “I live 75 miles away from a Walmart, to give you an idea of how rural my area is. Now, half the people there want growth, that’s usually the storefronts, the realtors. And then the other half would just like it to stay the way it is.” He added, “We want to be left alone by the agencies and everyone else.”

“Decisions have to be made with planning, and how you’re going to strike the balance between what your community wants your community to look like and how you’re going to continue one with those sorts of practices,” he ultimately explained. When he expressed specific ways that those conflicts often come up, he cited the expectations created by particularly the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

The ADA had been previously absent from Stephens’ testimony, both in what specific regulations she referenced and the general scope of her argument. Chris Turkovich and a vineyard-owning speaker, Ann Wofford, had both briefly referenced it, as had Penny Leff who explained it might “inhibit some tours”. The crux of speeches by the various experts on the situations of these businesses had been that improving roads and revisiting regulations, if carefully done, could lead to some benefits. Dahle, a farmer himself, moved the focus of the regulations on to how ADA or environmental regulations could be weapons for petty feuds in rural communities, and reduced roads improvement to an act of intrusion.

One urban farmer from Sacramento, James Brady, declared that the testimonies about the needed changes had, immediately after Dahle’s response, made him “afraid” for how regulations might work against him. The message that many of the speakers had delivered, of agritourism bringing people together, had been soured by what conflicts had been referenced and Dahle’s anti-regulatory concluding note. What had started out as a reason for optimism on the part of agricultural communities, or perhaps a difficult but attainable goal, had been lost in the fray.

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