Agritourism rules

A scarecrow appears to wave to visitors at The Patch, an agritourism farm in Ellensburg, Wash. Gov. Jay Inslee has revised his COVID-19 rules for agritourism activities.

Washington farmers who depend on agritourism are breathing a bit easier now that Gov. Jay Inslee has relaxed regulations he issued Aug. 20 that would have put many of them out of business.

After farmers raised a hue and cry that the original rules were too restrictive, Inslee’s office took another look. Why it didn’t seek more farmer input in the first place is a mystery to operators, but not completely without precedent in Big Government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The original rules required agritourism customers to wear face coverings and keep at least 6 feet apart. The rules banned activities such as wagon rides, haunted houses, playgrounds, farm equipment “exploration,” animal viewing, petting areas, paintball and campfires.

The rules required one-way traffic flows in the fields and “appropriate signage to ensure washing of fruits/vegetables before consumption & use.” Visitors could not be driven to fields and were to be encouraged to sanitize their hands coming and going.

The prohibitions on playgrounds, viewing animals and rides to fields were more restrictive than rules for public parks, zoos and public transportation.

At the time, a spokesman for Inslee said the Health Department gave strong direction to allow only primary activities such as U-pick, U-cut and pumpkin patches.

“We don’t want families lingering, even in an outdoor environment,” he said in an email at the time.

Anyone caught providing fun faced a hefty $10,000 fine.

Farmer Hilary Huffman called the original rules a “gut punch” that would have forbidden most activities at her agritourist farm, The Patch in Ellensburg, Wash.

The governor’s office said it consulted two farms, including Maris Farms in Pierce County. That seems to be an exaggeration.

Maris Farms co-owner Joanne Templeman said the farm wasn’t involved in drafting the rules and had no influence on the outcome.

“We had a chance to read the draft earlier this week,” she said the day the rules were issued. “The final rules do not reflect any of our comments.”

Nor did they reflect the economics of agritourism, which is about providing an experience that guests will pay money to enjoy. The profits on pumpkins and other produce are minimal compared to the money that can be made providing fun activities — and that’s before paying the cost of the necessary safety precautions.

Inslee relented and last Friday issued revised rules that farmers say will largely allow them to save their harvest season activities.

Belatedly, Inslee’s office found that operators were already taking steps to protect their customers and were willing to work with the state to that end.

“We had conversations with stakeholders and were comfortable with their commitments to operate safely,” an Inslee spokeswoman told the Capital Press.

State leaders should talk with, and listen to, stakeholders in advance of such rulemaking. They know their business better than anyone in state government, and have a vital interest in their customers’ safety.

More listening and less dictating will go a long way in avoiding unnecessary and draconian measures.

Recommended for you