HARTFORD, CONN. >> With the growth of agritourism and more people visiting local farms, Connecticut officials are joining other states in educating farmers about how to mitigate health risks for their new visitors.
Connecticut's latest push comes after dozens of young children and adults were infected with E. coli in March after visiting a Lebanon goat dairy farm. Ten of the 41 confirmed cases required hospitalization.
While subsequent investigations showed no evidence the milk, cheeses, caramels or other products sold by Oak Leaf Dairy were the cause of the outbreak, officials believe visitors were sickened after coming in close contact with goats. Dr. Bruce Sherman, director the Connecticut Department of Agriculture's Bureau of Inspection and Regulation, said people were petting the animals. Some purchased kid goats and brought them home. Meanwhile, E. coli was found on gates, a concrete floor and even a bale of hay where children sat, holding the kid goats.
"A lot of farmers aren't aware of the risk, because they're so sporadic," Sherman said of such outbreaks. "The public isn't aware of the risk."
On Wednesday, both state and federal experts met with Connecticut farmers at the Legislative Office Building in Hartford to discuss ways they can better protect public health, animal health and their businesses as they open up their farms to the public. Topics ranged from preventing outbreaks to safely preparing food on the farm.
According to the latest Census of Agriculture, popularity is growing for agritourism, a broad term that can refer to anything from corn mazes to pick-your-own strawberries. The number of U.S. farms reporting income from agritourism operations grew about 42 percent from 2007 to 2012. In Connecticut, it grew nearly 135 percent over those same years. There are nearly 6,000 farms in the state, the majority of which are very small.
As interest has blossomed, Ohio and other states have sought to help shield farmers with agritourism operations from being sued over inherent risks, such as a horse kicking a visitor. The hope is to make it easier for farmers to purchase affordable insurance.
Joe Tisbert, president of the Vermont Farm Bureau Board of Trustees, said agritourism is very important to farmers in his state, where there are regular classes on food and visitor safety, as well as resources on marketing and risk management
Tisbert, who grows organic produce on his Cambridge, Vt., farm, knows firsthand the importance of agritourism. His wife persuaded him four years ago to hold farm-to-table dinners. The couple now hires licensed chefs who come to the farm weekly and cook meals for hungry visitors.
"I love it," he said. "I've eaten dinner with people from all over the world."
Henry Talmage, executive director of the Connecticut Farm Bureau, said his organization is working with farmers to help them take advantage of the trend toward more direct-to-consumer sales at the farms, whether it's offering community supported agriculture or CSA farm shares, selling fresh apple pies at an orchard or hosting wedding receptions.
"There are certainly consequences of going down the road of agritourism," he said. "I wouldn't say that farmers are unaware of this. It adds complexity, there's no question."