Helena Hollow, a 160-acre Alabama “entertainment farm” that features a petting zoo, party barn and zip line, was booked to hold nearly six birthday parties every weekend from March 15 to May 16. But the arrival of COVID-19 and the stay-at-home orders that followed forced owners Jamie and Amy Griffin to temporarily close the company’s doors and cancel or reschedule the parties.
Over 2,000 miles away in Oregon, Bella Organic Farm has seen more summer foot traffic than it ever has, according to marketing director Sofia Kondilis. The Sauvie Island farm allows visitors to pick their own blueberries, strawberries, blackberries, cherries and corn and grows over a hundred types of crops in its fields and greenhouses that it sells in its farm store.
Agritourism operations around the nation have seen differing levels of success dealing with stay-at-home orders and visitor restrictions put in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Some farms, notably U-pick operations, are finding it easier to adapt. Others aren’t.
“Some of the operations with which I have spoken are actually seeing increases in revenue because their operations are seen as being open,” Suzi Spahr, the executive director of the International Agritourism Association (which goes by the acronym NAFDMA), told Agri-Pulse. “And then by regulations put in place, some of our operations cannot be open at all.”
States have been vague about agritourism operations when issuing guidelines for business closures. A large number of these operations serve as grocery stores and farmers markets, which are deemed essential nationwide. But many also have entertainment components, which are often seen as nonessential. The mixed status of the agritourism industry created confusion for many operations, which had to decide whether or not to remain open — and if it was legal to do so.
“At least in Alabama, when the guidelines came out for what needed to stay closed and what needed to open, entertainment venues was a category that was not allowed to open, even in Phase 1,” Amy Griffin of Helena Hollow told Agri-Pulse. “But when you go down the list of what's included in an entertainment venue, none of it really applies to us.”
With no clear instructions on what to do, Griffin said the Helena Hollow staff made the decision to reopen for private parties in mid-May after determining it would be safe for small groups to gather on an open-air farm. They brought three extra portable toilets and hand-washing stations onto the property and placed bottles of hand sanitizer on every table. All employees wore face masks, and extra masks were on hand to distribute to guests as needed. She said masks for guests were not required, as most of the customers were already comfortable around one another and were merely renting the venue.
“I feel like we were overlooked in the time that it was nice to be overlooked, because then we were able to kind of make our own way and to open when we felt it was safe for our employees, animals and customers,” Griffin said.
Skelly’s Farm Market, a three-season operation located in Wisconsin, had a clearer understanding of its status. On May 13, the Wisconsin Supreme Court overturned the governor’s stay-at-home order; since then, restrictions have been made on a county-by-county basis.
“I think the good thing for Wisconsin is, or at least in our county, is that most of them are guidelines and not hard and fast rules,” Tom Skelly told Agri-Pulse. “So we have the ability for our business to adapt those as we see the best way possible.”
The farm — which grows strawberries in June, sweet corn and summer produce in July and August, and a pumpkin patch in September and October — has put several rules in place for guests. The business added hand-washing stations to the U-pick strawberry field, and customers are being encouraged to wash their hands and wear masks while picking. A drive-through component has been added to the farmers market that allows customers to pull up, place an order with an employee on a tablet and then wait for the employee to gather the food.
“Things are going to be a little bit different, but for the most part, we're still trying to offer a similar experience,” Skelly said.
Bella Organic’s U-pick and grocery services remained open through Oregon’s stay-at-home order, falling under the essential business category. Multnomah County, where the farm is located, entered Phase 1 of reopening on June 19. Before that, the farm was unsure of what the law would allow for.
“To be honest, we don't even know for sure what's allowed,” Kondilis said. “So, we're not offering things because we don't want to get in trouble.”
Because of state law, guests are not allowed to sit in chairs or consume any food or beverages while at Bella Organic Farm. They are allowed to wander around the farm, shop at the store with masks on and pick berries in the fields using gloves and masks. The farm has taken several mitigation steps such as hiring a manager to enforce safety guidelines, requiring masks and gloves for employees, encouraging visitors to wash their hands, and offering curbside pickup and delivery options for customers.
“Honestly, we were afraid people wouldn't come because of us being strict,” Kondilis said. “But so many people are like, 'we're so thankful that you're doing this.’”
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Kondilis says that last year, the farm would see about 50 people on a typical weekday and about 200 on the weekends. This year, she has seen up to 200 visitors on the weekdays and even more on the weekends. Despite the increase in summer visitors, she said the staff is worried about what will happen in October.
In a normal year, thousands of customers would crowd the farm on the weekends, visiting the pumpkin patch and corn maze. This year, however, fewer people will be able to gather, and it is likely that the farm will lose a large amount of its profit. Typically, visitors pay at the gate, but if restrictions on the number of people allowed in are put in place, traffic on the island can get backed up for miles. The staff has thought about selling tickets ahead of time or allowing people to register for time slots, but there will be no easy solution.
“I think we're going to have to really think about what we're going to do,” Kondilis said. “And if there are restrictions on how many people go onto the farm, I think that's going to be complicated for a lot of people.”
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