Bedminster and Hilltown, neighboring townships in Bucks County, each boasts acres of sun-dappled land and a history of farming that dates back centuries. But to farmer Kevin Roberts, they’re otherwise as different as could be.
Hilltown is mired in an ongoing legal battle with a farm fighting a township order to shut down many of its popular events — an annual Irish Festival, yoga and wine meetups, and a Father’s Day brunch, among others — that have long drawn in families for a day in the countryside.
Hilltown officials say such “agritainment” events exceed what is allowed on a rural-residential property such as a farm. Bedminster has no such prohibitions — and no issues with farmers branching out beyond produce and livestock.
Roberts, who co-owns Durham Hill Farm in Bedminster with his wife, Elizabeth, wants to be sure things stay that way. He believes local farms should be able to host events, such as farm-to-table dining, corn mazes, and hay rides; opportunities that give farmers a source of extra revenue and visitors fresh ways to enjoy themselves. He’s drafted a measure that would expressly permit such uses in Bedminster.
Township Manager Richard Schilling said Roberts’ proposal marks the first time the town has entertained the idea.
Roberts’ proposal, designed to avoid zoning tussles like those in Hilltown, could come up for a vote by the township’s three supervisors, all of whom are farmers, as early as Tuesday.
“This is just so people have more flexibility to make sure they can keep the lights on and pay the bills,” Roberts said of farmers who could benefit from the measure. He said he has little to gain from the change. More than three years ago, he got a zoning variance that allows him to host weddings and other events at his farm.
“Even though we had already been approved to host events on our farm, I saw other property owners all across the U.S. and Bucks County were having severe issues with local municipalities in regards to farm-based businesses,” Roberts said in an email. “Issues that were costing business owners huge sums of money. I didn’t like what was happening, so I decided to act.”
Glenn Wismer, Bedminster’s board of supervisors chairman, did not respond to requests for comment.
If approved, the measure would allow farmers to make wine and spirits from their own crops, open farm or gift shops on their property, and host events ranging from Christmas tree cuttings and petting zoos to weddings and concerts.
All such events, according to a draft of the proposed ordinance, must not significantly alter the farm’s use or the rural character of the neighborhood.
If the ordinance passes, Schilling said, he doesn’t expect that “a boatload of people” would be seeking to add farm-related tourism or entertainment.
For decades, farmers around the world have capitalized on so-called agritourism and agritainment, with a few — notably Knott’s Berry Farm, a small family business turned 57-acre amusement park in California — pushing agriculture almost entirely aside in favor of a more profitable venture.
Across the country, about 50,000 farms that recorded profits upward of almost $1 billion attributed “a portion of their income" to agritainment, according to Penn State Extension, a branch of the university dedicated to the study of agriculture.
In Pennsylvania, many farms that host events are small family operations, like Tabora, a 10-acre farm and orchard in Hilltown owned by Caleb and Patricia Torrice.
For more than a year, the Torrices have fought township officials who cited them for building and zoning violations. Among other things, the town ordered them to stop hosting events not directly related to agriculture. As a consequence, the Torrices say, their events calendar has mostly been limited to “U-Pick” fruit gathering, the success of which is largely dependent on favorable seasons and growing conditions.
Calling the township’s actions punitive, the Torrices have hired a lawyer to try to ease the restrictions. So far, they say, their legal fees have reached $50,000.
The Torrices laud Bedminster for taking a different and less restrictive approach.
“I think Bedminster is on the right track, and the fact they’re being proactive — kudos to them,” said Caleb Torrice.
About eight miles away, Roberts, of Durham Hill Farm, shakes his head at the situation in nearby Hilltown.
“They’re knee-deep in their nonsense over there,” he said of Tabora. That is all the more reason, he said, to try and persuade Bedminster to update its rules.
“I thought it be prudent to make the case to our township to get ahead of this issue," he said, “so other small farm business [owners] wouldn’t be unfairly treated because of out-of-date and inconsistent ordinances.”