‘Agritourism’ bill could be last Kulik files before retirement in January

The Recorder, November 30, 2018, by Richie Davis

With about a month left in the legislative session — and until his retirement — Rep. Stephen Kulik hopes his proposal for a state study of how to beef up agricultural tourism will become a reality.

The bill, which could be the last piece of legislation filed by the Worthington Democrat, who has long been an advocate for making farms more viable as part of the state’s economy, aims to create a state commission to find ways to “support, expand and enhance” opportunities for Massachusetts agricultural tourism.

The measure, which would create a nine-member commission chaired with representatives of the state agricultural and tourism departments, as well as House and Senate chairs of committees with those jurisdictions, and a representative of the Department of Public Health, public health and appointments from the Massachusetts Municipal Association, the Massachusetts Farm Bureau Federation and the agricultural tourism industry.

Kulik, who sponsored the bill  for the first time this session, said it languished after being considered for the state economic development package, but has worked to revive it in informal session, with House passage Nov. 15. It’s now awaiting action in the Senate Ways and Means Committee, with Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, shepherding it toward a vote in the remainder of the informal session.

The proposed study commission would look at how other states promote agritourism, Kulik says,  and also examine “any impediments in Massachusetts to having a more robust agritourism presence,” including local zoning or health bylaws that are inconsistent from one community to another. It would be charged with issuing a report to the governor and the Legislature one year after implementation, with recommendations for promoting agricultural tourism.

“Massachusetts should focus on this a bit more to promote agriculture as part of tourism in the region,” says Kulik, pointing to commercials he’s seen for New York agricultural destinations. “If we can do things to bring more people to farms, for regular cider pressings or visits to sugar houses or to corn mazes for agricultural activities that supplement the primary focus of growing and harvesting their products, we could try to grow that as a viable business.”

The  Department of Agricultural Resources publishes and distributes a free agritourism map listing more than 400 sites around the state, including nearly 50 attractions in Franklin County. The Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism sponsors media tours by travel writers to take in events like Franklin County Cider Days.

Kulik says there have been problems in other parts of the state for farmers who have wanted to host weddings, operate bed and breakfasts or sponsor an on-farm road race.

A 2008 conference on agricultural tourism in the state found more than a 100 percent increase in Franklin County farms with tourism-related activities over the preceding decade, including roadside stands, pick-your-own operations, restaurants, tours and other amenities.

Outgoing Franklin County Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Natalie Blais, who’s scheduled to take Kulik’s 1st Franklin District seat in January, said in October as the agritourism bill went before the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Tourism, Arts and Cultural Development.

“Agricultural tourism is critically important as we look at the future of tourism in Franklin County,” Blais said. “It would be enormously helpful if we could find ways for local farmers to diversify in that way.”

Hinds, a co-sponsor of the bill, testified before the Senate Ways and Means Committee recently, saying, “Agricultural tourism is an important component of the agricultural economic sector, as it promotes visitors to farms and ranches. In my district, specifically, there is a significant agricultural economy that would benefit from the passage of this bill.”

Earlier this year, Mass. Farm Bureau, which supports the legislation, issued an adivisory: “The increased popularity of agritourism has not come without challenges. Issues have arisen with neighbors, local zoning, health regulations,” in part because, “many of the existing laws concerning farm activities did not consider agritourism, resulting in many gray areas. In some situations, this has created uncertainty and conflict around agritourism.”

Kulik, who said that growing the state’s agricultural economy has come up repeatedly in conversations about the food and farming over the years, also said, “I have a little list of things I’d like to finish up before I disappear, and this is one of them.”

Others, which Kulik described as “important but minor in nature, although, they’re important in some segments of the agricultural community,” include co-sponsored legislation that would require local health boards to consult with local agricultural commissions before adopting regulations that could hurt farming in communities.

House Bill 2465, which is waiting to be taken up on the House floor as part of the informal session, “doesn’t give them veto power, but it would provide a formal way for them to have input,” Kulik said. “It would bring consistency through consultation as a formal process.”

Yet another bill — House Bill 2738, which is awaiting action by the House Ways and Means Committee, of which Kulik is vice-chairman — would allow all-terrain farm utility vehicles to have farm plates, as tractors do, as a way of making it easier with farmers trying to access scattered properties to move them easily across roads or along roads, said Kulik. The issue was raised by a Williamsburg maple sugaring operation trying to get to hard-to-reach  parcels.

Kulik said he has filed the legislation in other years, but it’s faced opposition from the Registry of Motor Vehicles.” He said he believes the latest version addresses the registry’s concerns.