By DAN NETTER
Capital News Service
LANSING – The upcoming summer in Northern Michigan will bring an influx of visitors onto farms and ranches for recreational activities.
But along with their arrival will be more safety hazard risks for those working in the agritourism industry, according to a recent study.
While tourist activities on farms are becoming more popular, the rising demand for employees and unique workplace challenges that some agritourism workers face put them at increased risk, the study said.
Marsha Salzwedel, the study’s author, said, those circumstances are unique because workers in agricultural settings may both handle farmwork duties and do tasks demanded of service or retail workers.
At the same time, some agritourism operations are wrestling with a shortage of available workers.
“Another complicating factor for tourism operations is that, oftentimes, they’ll have visitors that are right in the middle of their workplace,” said Salzwedel, a project scientist at the National Children’s Center for Rural and Agricultural Health and Safety at the National Farm Medicine Center in Marshfield, Wisconsin.
Salzwedel defines agritourism as occurring when visitors come to a ranch or farm for recreational, pleasure or educational purposes. That includes wineries, horse-riding, cider mills, pumpkin patches, farm-based restaurants and you-pick fruit farms.
“Not only is that sometimes hazardous to the visitor, but it can also complicate things because they can actually act as a distraction to the worker as well,” she said.
Salzwedel said agritourism business operators may have different strategies for addressing the labor shortage like offering hiring bonuses and higher wages, but some operators may be unwilling to do so because it raises labor costs.
Alternatively, operators may have current employees work longer hours – for example, pulling 10- or 12-hour shifts instead of a more typical eight hours.
“There’s been a lot of work done and studies done that show us that the more tired a worker gets, the more prone they are, the higher risk there is for an injury,” Salzwedel said.
Salzwedel said another way some operators address the labor shortage that may endanger workers is by hiring children too young for the work required.
The federal Fair Labor Standards Act allows children under 16 to do certain types of jobs in agriculture, normally with their parents’ written permission.
According to a 2018 report from the Government Accountability Office, more than half of work-related deaths among children are in agriculture.
As for the overall staffing challenges, Black Star Farms, a winery in Suttons Bay and Traverse City, is recruiting for its busy season that runs from May through November, according to Sherri Fenton, its business operations proprietor.
Fenton said Black Star’s “Plan A, our best-case scenario,” is being fully staffed for the summer. However, the winery is now considering “Plan B,” which would have enough staff to ensure quality customer service.
Its recruitment includes paying a living wage and starting a retirement plan for employees who earn at least $5,000 for the season, she said.
The company also shortened its operating hours to avoid worker burnout, she said. For example, the winery’s cafe is open only four to five days a week, not six or seven as in the past.
Travel Michigan Vice President Dave Lorenz said the state is having a problem with a labor shortage in the tourism industry in general.
Many people who are eligible to work, Lorenz said, have just left the workforce, opting to become independent contractors and work in the gig economy.
The greatest number of people who are not working, according to Lorenz, are those who have retired or do things other than paid labor, like staying home and taking care of their children.
Lorenz said Travel Michigan, the business arm of the Michigan Economic Development Corp., has run advertising campaigns to entice people to move back to the state as a way to fill the labor gap.
“What we try to do is message why people need to be here,” Lorenz said.
He said the tourism and agritourism industry should also try to persuade retirees to return to the workforce part time.
Salzwedel’s study, published in the Journal of Agromedicine, calls for more research into the occupational hazards of agritourism to better recommend new guidelines and regulations to safeguard workers.