Every industry has been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, and the path to recovery is still not clear. Farms, however, have the advantage of wide-open spaces, making adapting to the ongoing crisis possible. Agritourism has boomed over the last decade, growing in revenue from $704 million in 2012 to nearly $950 million 2017, according to the USDA. And with increasing interest in where food comes from, coupled with the attraction of safe outdoor activities during a pandemic, there’s no slowing it now.
Across the country, farmers have remained nimble throughout this year, implementing changes to keep visitors safe while also continuing to offer enjoyable agritourism activities for families eager to get outdoors. Here’s how three farms have made adjustments for 2020, and what sustainable changes they’ll continue to keep beyond this year.
Bringing Smiles Through Sunflowers
Family-owned Thompson Strawberry Farm in Bristol, Wisconsin, is hugely popular in late spring and early summer for its acres of pick-your-own strawberry fields; at one point, it was among the largest of its kind in the nation, with 150 acres of juicy red berries. Scott Thompson and his wife, the fourth generation to take over the farm, had been talking about planting sunflowers for a few years, thinking it would be a fun way to make the farm their own as they take over management from his parents.
When COVID hit, a window of opportunity opened. They consulted with doctors, and “basically everyone said, ‘If there’s anything people can do, it’s go outside and pick things,’” Thompson says. “So we thought … let’s do this, and let’s do it big.”
As soon as strawberry season ended in June, Thompson plowed them under and planted sunflowers in the same field. After the last planting in late July, they’d sowed 22 acres of sunflowers, yielding just over 2 million of the cheerful yellow flowers, which bloomed into October this year.
The pick-your-own model for sunflowers has been wildly popular, not only for its beauty but for the safe way Thompson designed the fields from the start. He intentionally split 5-acre fields into five sections, leaving 15- to 20-foot-wide lanes in between so visitors could naturally socially distance. “There are no areas where it pinches; you have all the room in the world,” Thompson says.
Because of this, they’ve had guests traveling from cities like Chicago (an hour away) to experience the fresh air on the farm. “We’ve been doing strawberries for over 100 years, and had more people come for the sunflowers this year than the strawberries,” Thompson adds. With so much space to spread out, masks aren’t required while picking.
“I’ve had people say, ‘This is the first time I’ve been able to take my mask off and be outside,’” Thompson says. “It helps them to forget about the realities of the world for a minute.” They plan to continue sunflowers as long as possible and are looking to add more types of cut flowers in the future.
Fresh Air in Oregon’s Fruit Loop
Katrina McAlexander’s family has farmed in the upper Hood River Valley for three generation: Her grandparents started Mt. View Orchards in Mt. Hood, her parents bought it in 1974 and she took over in 2014. The goal throughout the past century has remained the same: growing food for the community, from berries and cherries to stone fruits, apples, pears, pumpkins, and veggies like corn, beets and carrots.
While McAlexander has halted planning the U-pick orchard’s typical large events, such as harvest celebrations, and canceled hayrides, for the most part, operations have been able to remain largely business-as-usual. “We have not had to adapt a ton because we have 51 acres for [guests] to spread out on,” she explains.
In a year like 2020, it’s quite remarkable for a business to have not experienced any slowdown, but that’s been the case for Mt. View Orchards. “We’re having an epic year of crops,” McAlexander says. “The picking has been abundant this year [because] a lot of people are really wanting to get out of their house.”
The grounds of the orchards have also provided a safe space for families to spend time outdoors and enjoy a meal together. Picnic tables set up in the farm’s wedding pavilion are at least 20 feet apart from each other, and Grateful Vineyard, the pizzeria and winery that opened on the property last year, continued to offer takeout items throughout the pandemic. The orchard also serves homemade gelato, which guests can get in a cone to eat as they walk around the farm.
See more:?Oregon Agritourism Outings
An unexpected change this year has been the volume of requests Mt. View Orchard’s staff is getting from guests eager to understand more about where their food comes from, and also how to put up food for the upcoming winter. “A lot more customers are caring about food year round,” says McAlexander.
Getting Into Groceries and Timed Ticketing
As for all Americans, the pandemic has been a stressful time, to say the least, for Beverly Mooney, owner of Millstone Creek Orchards in North Carolina. Not only has she been focusing on keeping her business going and staff employed, she’s been continually looking for ways to keep her community safe and well-fed. “We’ve tried to stay two steps ahead,” says Mooney. “Whatever the rule is, I try to take everything one step further.”
Back in the early days of COVID-19, the 84-acre orchard – which grows blueberries, blackberries, peaches, grapes, apples, pumpkins and pecans – quickly pivoted to launch the Apple Barn Mobile Market. Through partnering with local producers, such as a sausage company, a bakery and a cheesemaker, they were able to offer a range of groceries for curbside pickup or delivery within a 15-mile radius of the town of Ramseur. Mooney and most of the vendors are planning to continue the service going forward, with slight price changes to allow for producers to make a small profit.
Another major change Mooney has implemented at the orchard is timed ticket entry, an idea she got from the nearby North Carolina Zoo. Guests must purchase tickets online in advance for a specific time, which allows safe spacing on the farm and avoids lines. It’s had benefit beyond safety, too.
“Before COVID, I couldn’t control who showed up when, so people would be frustrated during [busy times],” Mooney explains. “Because we’re controlling it now, guest satisfaction is higher, because nobody waits. It’s one of those blessings for us as a different way to manage business in future years.” She’s planning to continue the timed ticketing for fall and Christmas events, too.
The orchard does require masks in the barn and also on hayrides, which have been reduced to 50% capacity to minimize risk. And Mooney herself is constantly on the lookout for pinch points, making adjustments on the fly to keep people safe, such as limiting the number of guests in the barn, changing the flow of foot traffic or directing people to use the space around the pond, which has live music on weekends. “If we’ve learned anything this year,” says Mooney, “it’s to keep our nose to the ground and adapt to changes as quickly as possible.”