by Courtney Llewellyn
Earlier this year, NAFDMA hosted an online roundtable to ask producers how they were preparing for an autumn influenced by COVID-19 restrictions. At the beginning of October, the international agritourism association brought in three different growers to discuss how the harvest season has been going.
On hand were Andrew and Chrissy Thiessen of Thiessen Orchard in Leamington, ON; Jeanne Johnson of Johnson Farms Plants & Pumpkins in Belton, MO; and Leigh Hunter of Hunter Brothers Farm in Florenceville, NB. They discussed how their safety protocols have been working, how they’ve been managing visits and what they plan to do going forward.
Thiessen Orchard is a U-pick apple and pumpkin operation that also offers activities and food concessions. They’re open from the weekend after Labor Day through the end of October, and run a year-round flower shop as well. They installed sinks and hand sanitizing stations, and use a sanitizing fog regularly on their jump pad, their wagons and other common areas. They also have a lot of signage outlining safety procedures.
“We’re one and a half times as busy as normal,” Andrew Thiessen said. “Overall, it’s been a positive experience with a lot of extra headaches, but we’re glad we could open.”
However, one new wrinkle this year led to negative feedback – the orchard decided to start charging for admission. “It was partially COVID-related, and partially something we had been talking about,” Chrissy Thiessen explained. “We have heard some backlash, with people saying we were taking advantage of people during a time where we should be letting people come on the farm for free. We’re managing it, and our skins are getting a little thicker because of it.”
They now offer online ticketing, with tents set up at the entrance so they can collect visitor information for contact tracing. Inside, they are only running 50% capacity on their wagons, and if visitors don’t want to wear their masks to ride the wagon, they can walk to the orchard or pumpkin patch. They also decided not to offer refunds for admission, but did allow purchasers to apply that credit toward apples or food.
“The online ticketing we implemented is a definite positive that came out of this, so I can see us continuing that,” Andrew said. “I can see us marketing and selling earlier, or even year-round. There’s a bunch of good things. We have more wagons, more staff – and that helps keep things more organized.”
Chrissy added that they’re probably going to keep a small cleaning crew for the next few years.
“We have to make hay while the sun shines. We only have an eight-week season,” Andrew said. “And so far, so good.”
Johnson Farms in Missouri basically straddles the border between two states that handled the pandemic differently, Jeanne Johnson explained, and so they needed to figure out what they were going to do early on. They decided to make people feel like they were doing their due diligence – now there are more hand washing and sanitizing stations, reduced lines and increased cleaning protocols throughout the farm. They also conduct a daily employee health questionnaire at the time clock.
“We had our mums ready early, but knew we were going to be busy,” Jeanne said. “People were so ready to get outside and do things that are outside.” Their sunflowers and vegetables were ready in September, and they decided to open their pumpkin patch early too. However, they didn’t open their crawl spaces, corn pit or indoor barn maze because those spaces would be “impossible to sanitize.” She recommended using MaxxClean for sanitizing other surfaces. It works by changing the pH of surfaces to kill viruses and bacteria.
Johnson Farms made the switch to online admission sales this year as well. “The biggest help for me was going to online ticketing,” Jeanne said. Would-be visitors sign COVID safety waivers when tickets are purchased.
“We have 160 acres and 2,700 visitors on a given day, so keeping track of online tickets still gives us room for walk-ins,” she explained. She plans on continuing online ticketing in the future, using TicketSpice, and will stick with her farm’s stronger cleaning protocols as well.
The “customer” season doesn’t begin until July at Hunter Brothers Farm, according to Leigh Hunter. They normally plan ahead by planting sunflowers, a corn maze and a pumpkin patch, and this year they planted their sunflowers and pumpkins so that visitors could drive their own vehicles out to the fields, rather than relying on shared wagons. They also use MaxxClean, and have placed hand sanitizers wherever an employee is positioned.
Their main product is sweet corn, though, and this was the first year they started offering it via online sales. “We were pre-selling goods through our Square store,” Leigh explained. “We discovered people were buying more corn thanks to having contactless payment” versus relying on what cash customers had on hand.
They also use TicketSpice to sell time slots to visitors, with their reduced capacity based on their parking lot size. However, people weren’t necessarily leaving when their time slots ended. Rather than change their ticketing system, they kept two-hour windows for entrance times but told people to plan for three-hour visits. “That helped improve our own mental wellbeing,” Leigh said.
Hunter Brothers actually has fewer employees this year. “I know my maximum crowd this year is 600, so there are fewer variables,” Leigh explained. “That anxiety is gone. But we’re going to use this system every year, even when our capacity goes up. I can plan not only for staff, but for how much food to order. In marketing, it creates a demand in customers’ minds. Now people see that tickets are selling out – a scarce resource – and that creates a fear of missing out. We have very few people who purchase tickets and don’t show up.”
“It’s so hard to not put the pedal to the metal,” Jeanne Johnson noted. “This business has always been about waiting for those big weekends – now we need to be more community-minded. People just seem to be appreciative that we’re open.”
NAFDMA plans to host an end of season roundtable planned in November. For more information, visit nafdma.com.