by Gail March Yerke
It’s that time of year again. Pumpkin farms are gearing up for their big season and getting ready to welcome families, group tours and busloads of school children for their fall field trips – or are they?
As pumpkin fields transition from green to bright orange, it’s uncertain how the landscape will change for these agritourism businesses during the coronavirus pandemic. Even outdoor venues are looking to the CDC for guidelines. Pumpkin farm operations are being impacted along with all other business today.
While the CDC has general guidelines for the country, individual state and municipal health departments oversee business operations. It’s like a patchwork quilt that often has different regulations in communities across the same state. It’s no surprise that some farms have decided against opening for the 2020 season and others have adapted and downsized their operations for compliance. What are these farms doing to open to the public while keeping their staff and guests safe?
Catering to preschool through third grade school tours, Goebbert’s Farm and Garden Center of Barrington, IL, has opted to cancel those popular events this year. The suburban Chicago autumn destination has implemented a number of COVID-19-related safety precautions and are asking their customers to “join us in working together to stay safe this fall.” In an effort to limit daily capacity and maintain a safe experience for all, they are requiring entrance tickets for anyone three years and older on weekends from late September through October. Tickets are available for purchase online for selected dates and arrival times. Without a pre-purchased ticket, admission is not guaranteed during their busy weekends.
Schuett Farms of Mukwonago, WI, raises sweet corn for summer and autumn sales and grows 25 acres of pumpkins and gourds for their harvest season. Besides turning their farm into a fall destination each year, Rob and Linda Schuett and their sons Brian and Scott also raise field crops and beef cattle and sell fresh-cut Christmas trees and wreaths during the holiday season. Located 30 miles southwest of metro Milwaukee, their Waukesha County pumpkin farm is a popular place for school field trips, church groups and corporate events.
“Usually by late August we are already booked for the season,” said owner Rob Schuett. “So far this year we have just a few groups.” Despite the impact on the group tour part of their business, the Schuett family plans to open and offer a corn maze, hay rides and other outdoor activities for guests.
Long Neck Pumpkin Farm of Colorado Springs is facing similar issues. “It’s been such a mess,” said co-owner Candy Longnecker. “At first we thought we’d close and then thought we’d open and just sell pumpkins.” Candy and husband Kevin have owned and operated the farm since 2015. Before that, Candy taught kindergarten for 16 years; Kevin worked as a landscaper and farmer and also serves as a pastor. When they asked for information from their local health department, they were told that guidelines would not be available until mid-September. “We needed answers before that, so we just decided to go for it and open. This is our livelihood,” she said.
As Colorado school districts eliminated field trips this autumn, the group tour part of their business disappeared. Last year they averaged two to three school bus groups per day. This year they are hoping for at least a few preschool groups. “With preschool groups, the parents drive the children here themselves,” she explained. Most activities on the farm will still operate with just a few eliminated because of required social distancing. To comply with CDC guidelines for their size venue, 175 is the maximum number of guests allowed on their farm at any given time – a far cry from last year’s best attendance record of 2,900 in one day. Long Neck Pumpkin Farm’s website has an online order system for visitors to purchase tickets for any one of three timeframes on the day of their choice. Tickets need to be purchased in advance and no walk-ins will be available. One addition this year is that pumpkins are available in bulk. Customers can email or phone in their orders with an option to pick them up at the farm or have them delivered.
Other adjustments include refreshments served at the farm. In past years there were several different food areas with pumpkin donuts, apple cider, hamburgers and hot dogs. “This year we’ll offer hot dogs and chili dogs to keep it simple,” Candy said. “Kevin will meet and greet our visitors at the gate. We want this to be a happy place where families can have a good time.” One young family told Candy that their children look forward to visiting their farm each year. “The kids told their parents that next to Disneyland, the pumpkin farm was their favorite place to be.”
Pumpkin farms are adapting and finding ways to bring their guests some outdoor fall fun. Getting through the myriad different local and state requirements has been a challenge, yet many farms have done just that. Visiting a pumpkin farm this autumn may not be Disneyland, but according to one family, it’s the next best thing.