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Agritourism challenges: COVID-19 causes changes in businesses

U-pick farms are being affected by the COVID-19 social distancing guidelines. Alternative options, such as drive-through pick-ups and online shopping, are being set up on some farms.
U-pick farms are being affected by the COVID-19 social distancing guidelines. Alternative options, such as drive-through pick-ups and online shopping, are being set up on some farms.

INDIANAPOLIS — As with most industries, COVID-19 has impacted agritourism businesses this year.

The NAFDMA International Agritourism Association hosted an online roundtable to share stories and discuss solutions to challenges.

Drive-Through Tulip Field

Michelle Brown, co-owner of Brown Hill Farms in Pennsylvania, had no clear guidelines on how to proceed with her new 4-acre tulip patch this spring.

Her farm was considered essential, but the u-pick flower field was not addressed by regulations.

After calling the secretary of agriculture for guidance, Brown proceeded to create a drive-through version of the u-pick field.

“We made an effort to have great customer service,” she said. “We even built roads through the field, which was extremely stressful and difficult.”

All employees wore masks and gloves. They charged $20 per vehicle to experience the farm, which included tulip fields and a doughnut stand.

“We learned a lot through this,” said Brown. “We learned that people will buy way more flowers than we ever expected. I think they liked that they were already cut for them. We sold about 2,000 bouquets Mother’s Day weekend. We were extremely happy with that.”

Brown also experienced challenges, including complaints about rough farm roads.

The family is doing what they can to “make it work.”

Online Markets

Kelly Jackson, co-owner of Emily’s Produce in Maryland, started off by allowing limited numbers of visitors this spring.

As the COVID-19 outbreak spread, it didn’t take long to move to an online ordering system and drive-through operation.

Jackson’s team feels safe not having the public in their store space, so the arrangement is working well. They do not know when things will return to normal.

They are also juggling a new version of u-pick strawberry fields.

“This was uncharted territory,” Jackson said. “They get gloves and they must wear a mask in the fields. We’re very strict with that. We’re limiting rows. We have all of our rows numbered, so we give them a row when they arrive and tell them to stick to that row. It’s working well.”

When it comes to other produce, Jackson plans to continue using online ordering in the future.

“It’s a new thing that won’t go away for our business,” she said. “There’s a group/segment that just loves it.”

Finding Best Practices

Olivia Telschow, co-owner of Helene’s Hilltop Orchard in Wisconsin, is using “safer at home” practices due to a lack of guidance from the state.

“We decided to do a once-a-week drive-through bakery for about three hours every Saturday, 100% pre-ordered using a Square online store,” she said. “We staff that with our immediate family.”

The system is working well, but comes with a learning curve.

“We average an error rate of about 1% to 2%,” Telschow said. “It’s something that’s been frustrating to me. I don’t know what an average error rate is. When we do get an error we correct it immediately.

“We may go out at the end of the afternoon and deliver the product to that person.”

Currently, all on-farm events have been canceled through June. Telschow would like to continue events in July and August, but the future is uncertain.

She is putting a focus on safety protocols that align for her produce and food safety programs.

“All of the signage for the farm is signage that I’ll be able to use in the future,” she said. “I’m not putting the word COVID-19 on anything.”

Telschow encouraged other farmers to review their food safety procedures at this time.

For more information about the NAFDMA International Agritourism Association, visit www.nafdma.com.

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