With health and safety of employees and customers a priority, it may make sense this U-pick season to offer produce directly for sale rather than gathered from a field or orchard.

by Courtney Llewellyn

Agritourism has been one of the best ways for farmers to create additional income. With stay-at-home orders popping up nationwide, though, the people can’t travel. How are farmers handling this?

The topic was discussed in the “Managing Agritourism Through the Coronavirus Crisis” roundtable, hosted by NAFDMA, the International Agritourism Association, and moderated by Scott Skelly of Skelly’s Farm Market in Janesville, WI.

A few speakers shared their experiences first. Tom Halverson, who runs a farm winery in Connecticut, had to shut down his tasting room and cooking classes but now offers bottle sales done outside. Orders are taken online and their portable credit card machines don’t require a signature if the purchase is under $100. “We had a lot less than a normal weekend this time of year for volume [March 20 – 22], but we exceeded expectations with how well people adjusted,” he said. “We hope to do same thing next weekend, but things are pretty fluid.”

Bill Michaels of Fly Creek Cider Mill in rural Upstate New York mentioned sales disparities: “This week, we normally do about $18,000 in sales – we had $4,400 this week.” Their full online store, however, did well ($1,200 this year versus $700 last year) and he noted the average ticket total has not significantly dropped.

His biggest concern going forward is the summer. Located just outside Cooperstown, NY, the 13-week summer season is a huge economic driver. “But our business seems to do well in a down economy,” he admitted. “We saw this after Sept. 11 and in 2008.”

“We’ve more than doubled our usual sales,” said Ed Weaver of Weaver’s Orchard in Berks County, PA. His farm market is open year-round, which includes a bakery, deli and garden center. They offer curbside pickup – customers call in their orders and pay over the phone.

Those who run U-pick operations are facing different challenges though. Michelle Patterson, who runs a farm in Tennessee, said they are fast approaching U-pick season. She noted that North Carolina State University has a very useful fact sheet for U-pick farms (available here). Other tips included providing good signage about cleanliness, and asking people not to come if they’re ill. “It’s all about cleaning and disinfecting. We’re already doing a lot of this as good agricultural practices,” Patterson said.

If you’re worried about insurance liability, U-pick operations can include waivers online. They can even try to get people to pay for fruit ahead of time, if possible, to limit interactions.

As for social distancing, employers can split shifts so workers aren’t all in the same place at the same time. Agritourism businesses can also consider being open more days (instead of just weekends) to ensure crowds aren’t gathering. And, even though it seems to go against every instinct of customer service, owners can always ask customers to leave if too many are congregating.

With people spending more time than ever on their devices, keep your farm’s storytelling going using your website or social media so people don’t forget about you when they are free to go out again. Especially include kid-friendly posts and educational content. Sharing content from other local businesses helps too.

“This is a good time to learn something new, do something new,” one of the participants noted. “Plan for the other side of this. Stay positive.”