Agritourism industry faces challenge in COVID-19 fallout, but opportunity also exists
You-pick berry operations modified to observe social distancing measures are just one part of the fast-growing US agritourism industry, which has been impacted greatly by the pandemic.
ROCHESTER, Minn. — COVID-19 will not only impact the entire U.S. agritourism industry, but change the way most people like to pick berries each summer.
For the Sanner family, the pandemic has made for a strange year to celebrate their 10th anniversary of being in business. Tonya and Dean Sanner, with their four children, operate Firefly Berries in northeast Rochester, where the crop for strawberries this year looks to be strong.
"Seasonally, everything still happens the same," said Sanner
But basically everything else about the business has turned upside down from the pandemic, she said. Last year, the farm opened for you-pick strawberries on June 20.
"In assessing the risks for ourselves and our customers, we decided that we wouldn't be open for you-pick strawberries at all this summer," said Sanner, who said all four of their children got to vote on the matter. The decision was unanimous.
She said it didn't feel safe for them as a family to continue their business as usual, doing most of the field work on their own and helping hundreds of customers each day make transactions.
Ultimately the decision hinged on the income they get from Dean's off-farm job at IBM, which Sanner said makes them in a unique position financially for an agritourism operation.
"Our income from the farm helps us, but it's not what puts food on the table for our children," said Tonya Sanner. "Had that been the case, I'm sure we would've made a different decision."
The Minnesota Department of Health released extensive guidelines for you-pick operations in the state. Included in those guidelines are things like having a designated exit and entrance, extra hand washing stations and not allowing people to eat berries while they're picking.
"We talked about who would be in charge of enforcing that rule," she said of the no-eating rule. "Nobody wanted that job."
A growing industry
Suzi Spahr is the executive director of North American Farmers’ Direct Marketing Association , a membership-based non-profit that serves as an educational resource and networking center for agritourism vendors.
She defines agritourism as when an “agricultural provider is welcoming a general consumer to come onto their farm.” Agritourism is comprised of any ag operation that contains a recreational, educational, pick-your-own or other retail component.
According to data from the USDA’s Census of Agriculture, the U.S. agritourism industry more than tripled between 2002 and 2017, and industry revenue grew from $704 million in 2012 to $950 million in 2017.
Spahr said it's only grown since then, as more producers look to diversify their operations to make up for low commodity prices. There's also a growing consumer interest in the industry.
"Interest in seeing the science and getting a better understanding of agricultural productivity, and of how our food is grown is actually coming back into the forefront," said Spahr.
As the issue of COVID-19 has progressed, Spahr said her association has held roundtables with its members to talk about the issues they were facing. The discussions offer members a space to share information and what's worked on their operations that could work on others.
Most state departments of agriculture or departments of health have issued guidelines for you-pick farms, and Spahr said some are better than others.
“This is new, so some states have just been struggling to determine the best overall practices,” she said. “Everyone is just running, and trying to keep up.”
Spahr said for most you-pick operations, deciding not to open for you-pick wasn't an option.
“For the most part, you can’t really decide not to you-pick, because you don’t want to just leave produce sitting in the field,” Spahr said. “You can’t forego the (you-pick) income and leave the produce to wither away.”
At Firefly Berries, having no you-pick business this year means the six members of the Sanner family will have a lot more picking to do on their own.
"We had to figure out if it was even feasible for us to pick them all, without wearing ourselves to the ground," Sanner said.
Sanner drafted a schedule which designated days and times to pick, with days of rest in between, and came to the conclusion that each one of them would have to pick for 30-40 hours a week to handle the entire crop.. That's not counting the hours of work that goes into customer relations and prepping orders.
The busy picking schedule is already taking a toll on their bodies, said Sanner. With the exception of their 8-year-old son, everybody sees the family chiropractor once a week.
The aches will hopefully be a memory next June, when the family hopes to be open again for you-pick.
"We plan to be around long after COVID-19," she said.
The show must go on
At an agritourism operation about 50 miles west of Firefly Berries in Rochester, the you-pick season is still on.
Bill Hein, co-owner of Straight River Farm in Faribault, Minn. , said he thinks the strawberry crop will be good "all over" this year because the area didn't see much frost. Hein said they'll be open for you-pick business in mid-June this year like they are every summer.
"We're going to spread people out in the fields, and they need to wear masks when interacting with others," said Hein.
Hein, who runs the farm with his wife, Maggie, said the you-pick side of the their business is a "very important piece of revenue" for them.. The couple works long hours on the farm each summer, even with the part-time help they hire.
"You need the revenue," he said. "Plus you've got tons and tons of strawberries in the field and they don't keep."
The couple has been on the farm since 2003, and Hein said the impact from the pandemic has him feeling like it'll be "time to move on" soon from the business.
"I'm not getting any younger," said Hein, who's 75.
For Hein, the uncertainty over what kind of business they'll do this summer isn't what gets to him. What disappoints him the most is the things that make berry picking special to him and many others could be lost to social distancing. Ordinarily, people pick right next to each other, he said.
"It's just sort of natural with picking that people end up together, even if they didn't start together or know each other," he said. "There's an urge to communicate with each other, and we'll have to discourage that this year."
Spahr said the optimist in herself believes the pandemic won’t force a significant amount of agritourism operations out of business. There could even be a bump in revenue for the businesses that were allowed to stay open throughout the pandemic, she said.
In areas of the country that have prevented agritourism operations from re-opening, Spahr said the impact from COVID-19 will be critical.
“If they can’t open, then very clearly they are not doing well,” she said.
She said the focus is already turning to the next season, because "so many rely heavily on the fall income.”
But Spahr wants people to know this summer that on top of it being a great family activity, agritourism as a whole is safe for consumers.
“It’s a safe and nice outdoor way to enjoy what’s in your local community and support that community,” she said.
She went as far as to say that agritourism was “the best thing that can be done" at this time, while people look for safe things to do with their families.
“When so much else is closed and sporting events and concerts are canceled, agritourism, for the most part, is open for you to go enjoy,” Spahr said. "Go find some corn on the cob or whatever you can pick that’s at your local farms, and have a picnic while you’re there.”