California customers said they felt safer coming to Underwood Family Farms for food essentials than being enclosed in traditional grocery stores.
Photo courtesy of Underwood Family Farms

by Courtney Llewellyn

Autumn can be the busiest visitor season for many farms which highlight pumpkin patches, corn mazes, apple picking and other family-friendly adventures.But this time of year isn’t the only time agritourism is in full swing. How have farmers and business owners been handling it in the year of COVID-19?

That’s what Saunders Farm, Carter Mountain Orchard, Vala’s Pumpkin Patch & Apple Orchard and Underwood Family Farms, spread across North America, talked about in a recent NAFDMA-led virtual roundtable.

North of the Border

Angela and Mark Saunders own Saunders Farm, renowned for its intricate hedge mazes, in Munster, ON. On March 17, Ontario declared a lockdown, with only essential businesses, including farming, allowed to stay open. On May 19, the province began its three-stage reopening plan.

“One of our superpowers in all of this was each other,” Angela said. “We stayed very optimistic and got creative and innovative.” They signed up for a ton of NAFDMA-member farm newsletters to see what everyone else was doing and noticed many farms were offering drive-thru groceries. “It was not something we’d done before, but our customers asked for it. We launched our store 12 days after asking customers about it – which included building a website and figuring out pick-up protocol. We had to be nimble.” Their first week, they brought in $14,000 in sales, which was “huge for us, because we had no income up to that point at the farm.”

Saunders Farm also launched campfires on the farm in March, a “perfect ‘stop the spread’ activity for families.” They have 20 different sites now and offer family and date night packages. They said the campfires got them through when they weren’t sure what they were going to do. Picnics were added June 8.

“We’ve been marketing our attractions as open-air attractions,” Mark said.

In mid-August, they launched a new event: A Midsummer Night’s Scream. Angela said it was the perfect year to try it out. They accepted 20 guests every 15 minutes for the early Halloween event. Guests booked online; visitor temperatures were taken and they needed to fill out safety questionnaires.

Their farm is now cashless. They went with an entirely online ticketing system (DigiTickets), which has the added bonus of keeping customer information in case contact tracing needs to take place.

“Safety needs to be highlighted and at the forefront of everything we do,” Angela said. Mark added, “We’re learning that communicating safety is one of the most important things you can do right now.”

Upending the U-Pick Model

Like many other ag operations, Carter Mountain Orchard in Charlottesville, VA, had big plans early in the year. Their scheduled opening day had been March 27. Instead, they developed a drive-up service which opened April 2. With a large pavilion outside the main barn, perfect for people to drive through, they designed the service after a brew-thru with lots of impulse purchases, according to orchard owner Cynthia Chiles. “We sold hundreds of puzzles,” she laughed.

They also dramatically increased apple and cider sales because they were selling larger quantities, since people were buying to stock up, not just for treats. They put their credit card swiper on long pole for in-person payments and allowed people to order and pay online (using Shopify).

Carter Mountain Orchard reopened walk-in service in early June, with one-way traffic in the store. Masks are required everywhere inside, and outside when people can’t socially distance.

“The public is weary,” Chiles said. “Our business offers an outside space to relax, but we need to be careful this doesn’t become a place people come to hang out and not buy anything because there is nowhere else to go.”

Their U-pick season began with strawberries in late April. They also offer blueberries, peaches, cherries and apples throughout the season. In the past, visitors always picked by the pound, with their bounty weighed at the end. “This year, we went to volume sales and as you can imagine, we’ll never go back,” Chiles said. “It’s one less contact with customers, and they’re pre-paying.” They assign rows to families to keep them safe distances apart.

“We didn’t push the experience as much as we usually do. It was more about getting people food in the beginning,” Chiles explained. They offered two- and five-pound options for strawberries and cherries, and half-peck, peck and half-bushel options for tree fruit.

Additionally, because hosting events is a big part of what they do, Carter Mountain Orchard has begun using online ticketing to ensure thousands of people don’t all show up at the same time. “We’re not seeing as many people at events, so sales are down, but having that ticket cost has helped balance that out,” Chiles noted.

Prepping for Pumpkin Season

Farms that focus on autumn-bearing produce, like apples and pumpkins, had a little bit of a cushion to work with this year. “We’re prepared for the future,” said Kirsten Vala-Fong of Vala’s Pumpkin Patch & Apple Orchard in Gretna, NE. “Cases [of COVID-19] have been pretty low in Nebraska, but the cases are going up in more rural areas, which is terrible timing for us.

“We expect we’ll be down in sales for the year … but we did a two-day July Fourth drive-thru event that went really well,” Vala-Fong said. “We know if we can do nothing else, we can do that and it have it be successful for us.”

Vala’s opened Labor Day weekend with their Apple Festival, and curbside delivery, which is new for them. They are offering presold tickets only online – “and we have no expectations. Maybe we’ll sell 200, maybe we’ll be sold out,” Vala-Fong said. She added they’ll also be utilizing their online store for Takeout Tuesdays, featuring caramel apples, donuts and cider. Hard cider will also be available for purchase. Like Saunders Farm, Vala’s offers small campfire packages, for which sales are up. They have over 70 sites across the farm.

Vala-Fong noted that local schools will be closed every other Wednesday, so the farm hopes to draw in some midweek guests. “We’re known for being crowded – we’ve had a 22,000-visitor day,” she said. “This year, we want to spread those numbers out over weekdays.”

Going cashless was already the plan for this year, “so COVID-19 gives us a good excuse for customers,” Vala-Fong continued. The farm is requiring employees to wear masks and encouraging guests to do the same. They added 300 hand sanitizers across their pumpkin patch, along with three permanent handwashing stations. Their corn maze is a one-way affair this year.

The orchard and pumpkin patch has had a safety manager on staff for five years, and Vala-Fong said now is her time to shine. “We’re really happy to have her,” she said.

Local Produce Love

“We opened March 1, with all our activities open, looking good for a great season, and then COVID-19 hit.” That’s how James Barker, general manager of Underwood Family Farms in Moorpark, CA, described their situation. But the pandemic didn’t stop them. They formulated a plan to move forward and saw “amazing numbers” in late March.

“People felt safe coming to our store, and if you wanted to shop at our store you had to follow our rules,” Barker said. “Most customers appreciated the standard we set, and we got very good feedback through social media.” Masks are required, and they added more restrooms and handwashing facilities for customers.

While the farms’ produce market sales have been good, their other income outlets are basically nonexistent. They were able to open for U-pick on May 1, since farming is an essential service in California. Containers are provided to visitors, and a lot of registers are open at checkout to handle crowds safely. On Memorial Day weekend, they saw around 3,000 people a day. Fortunately, farmers market sales are rebounding as well.

Underwood Family Farms introduced a healthy harvest box for sale every week for pick-up or delivery – like a CSA share – which was popular at first, but sales have slowed. The farm even started a flower garden for U-pick, and while Barker noted they “know nothing about flowers,” they are trying.

“This is an ever-changing game, and it’s hard to look into the crystal ball,” Barker said. “We’re trying to do the right thing and keep everybody safe.”

As for October: “We have decided to have no entertainment offerings,” Barker said. “We expanded the U-pick greatly to encompass up to 50 acres of the farm. The pumpkin field has more than doubled in size. The whole plan is to be around essential food offerings. There are a lot of photo ops for families, but as far as rides and entertainment, we have decided to go a more cautious route.”

They are being cautious with their finances as well. Barker noted he’s been pressuring the farms’ liability insurance agent for a refund, because they haven’t been operating as they had in the past. Fewer visitors and events means less coverage is needed.