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Apple orchards, corn mazes, pumpkin patches lure visitors seeking safe outings

Apple orchards, corn mazes, pumpkin patches lure visitors seeking safe outings

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After nearly 30 years, the pumpkin festival at Sinkland Farms has become an annual ritual for thousands.

Susan Sink made sure that the COVID-19 pandemic wouldn’t keep it from happening this year, even if the Christiansburg farm might operate a bit differently.

Festival grounds were expanded from about 20 acres to more than 30 acres. Only 1,000 people are allowed onto the farm at a time. Visitors can purchase tickets for admission online. Masks are required to enter and when close to others, such as on hay rides.

Custom shields were installed at all cashier stations. Hand washing stations are scattered across the grounds. Every two hours, staff sprays quick-drying sanitation solution on all touch surfaces.

The Cottage Shoppe is closed; instead, ice cream and beverages are served from a window. Rather than preparing food at the farm, food trucks are present on weekends. The festival, which typically runs Friday through Sunday over several weeks, was extended this year to Thursdays.

Sink said she’s prioritizing safety of her staff and guests, even if there has been some pushback related to masks.

“It would just be horrible to think that a COVID outbreak would be because of attendance at one of our festival days. Not what I would want, certainly,” she said.

Attendance has been strong at fall agritourism events in the region, though school field trips have largely been canceled. Farms are well suited for social distancing, providing a respite for those spending more time at home.

“What we’ve seen so far is that pumpkin patches, apple orchards, fall festivals, any type of agritourism event seems to be very well received this year. Lots of activity, lots of people showing up,” said Michael Wallace, director of communications for the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

He said the department advises visitors to call ahead or go online to learn about how each business is operating during the pandemic and whether reservations or tickets are required.

Sink put extra money into advertising this year so everyone would know the Sinkland Farms festival was still on despite the pandemic.

“I wanted the public to realize that we were continuing our tradition of the annual pumpkin festival here and I did not want families to forgo their autumn family tradition coming to Sinkland Farms,” she said.

Although she’s been pleased with the number of visitors so far, Sink said she won’t know for sure whether all the extra efforts and expenses were worthwhile.

Labor costs have increased greatly, as Sink added staff to count the number of people in and out of the farm and to carry out sanitation procedures.

In a typical year, some 30,000 people come to the pumpkin festival, which Sink said provides about half the income at Sinkland Farms. But this year is far from typical.

“I expected that the traffic would probably be down,” Sink said. “So I was really pleasantly surprised when the first weekend exceeded our expectations. The first weekend was our best opening weekend ever.”

Grateful for nature

In the early months of the pandemic when everything was shut down, Ned Jeter II worried that his family wouldn’t be able to host its annual fall festival on their Bonsack farm. Though beef cattle are still the main source of revenue for Jeter Farm, the autumn agritourism event is also lucrative. He said canceling the festival would have resulted in “a huge loss.”

“We’d already planted the pumpkins and all that, corn was already planted and sunflowers were planted,” Jeter said. He would have been forced to shift from retail to wholesale for the pumpkins.

But when restrictions loosened and people began to move about more freely, Jeter was able to move forward with the festival. It’s obvious that festival-goers had similar concerns, Jeter said, given the number who have thanked him for hosting the event.

“Everybody was afraid we weren’t going to do it this year,” he said.

So far, Jeter said it seems as if the festival is drawing a typically sized crowd. But he said the attendees seem more engaged, with fewer people glued to their phone screens. He thinks it’s because they’re grateful to be outside in nature.

Jeter also noticed more people have been forgoing hay rides to the attractions in favor of a short hike through sunflower fields. Agritourism events are a good entertainment option during the pandemic because they’re mostly outside and on large properties where it’s easy to spread out, Jeter said.

“It’s not like going to a movie theater where you walk in, you sit down and you’re elbow to elbow,” he said. “Or at a football game, which is still an outdoor event, but you’re still elbow to elbow with everybody. This you can spread out, make your own room.”

Jeter Farm has upped its cleaning and sanitation practices — there are more hand sanitizer and washing stations, and some employees are dedicated solely to cleaning tables between parties — and guests are asked to wear masks in congested areas. But otherwise the experience is largely the same as usual.

And the good news, Jeter said, is that the pumpkins turned out great this year. Though long streaks of 90-degree days should have burned the produce, he said, well-timed rains helped the crops survive.

Canceling not an option

Johnson’s Orchard in Bedford County has been extremely busy this year, with the pick-your-own apple season running several weeks ahead of schedule, said owner Danny Johnson.

The first weekend, so many people were waiting to enter the building to pick up a bag for their apples that a bottleneck formed. In response, Johnson added two outdoor stations where people could get bags, keeping lines shorter while allowing for social distancing.

The orchard could sell out of apples earlier than usual. In an effort to extend the season, Johnson said, pickers can bring only small and medium bags into the orchard. Volume buyers can select pre-picked apples that come from part of the orchard to which the pick-your-own guests don’t have access .

While he’s grateful for the business, Johnson said it’s been a lot of extra labor.

“It’s working us to death,” he said.

Johnson said visitors have been good about wearing masks, which the orchard requires inside buildings or in close proximity to others. Johnson said he takes COVID-19 seriously; he’s lost friends to it.

“Hopefully we’re doing everything we can to keep them separated and still let them have an enjoyable time here,” he said.

The uptick in traffic is likely the result of families looking for something they can safely do together, Johnson said.

“They don’t care whether there’s apples there or not, as long as they can get out there and wander around,” he said.

Layman Family Farms in Blue Ridge usually hosts between 16,000 and 18,000 students on field trips. But this fall, as many students are spending at least part of the week learning from home, Eric Layman expects to have no more than a handful of home school groups. And that’s on top of all the spring field trips being canceled when schools shut down altogether.

But Layman decided to go forward with the fall festival. He said it’s seemed a bit busier than usual, but he can’t tell if that’s in response to the pandemic or simply good weather.

“From what I see, I think our numbers, besides losing all of our field trips, I think we’re going to be OK,” Layman said. “It’s going to be worth opening.”

The farm has made some adjustments. There’s no corn bin — kind of like a sandbox, but filled with corn. Hay rides are at half capacity. Picnic tables are spread farther apart. High-touch surfaces are cleaned more often.

Guests are asked to wear masks in crowded areas, though Layman said not everyone has complied. However, it’s pretty easy to keep distance between parties.

“It’s not hard for people to social distance on a 90-acre farm,” he said.

The design of the corn maze, chosen long before the pandemic, turned out to be timely for 2020. It depicts and thanks “everyday heroes,” one of them being a nurse.

Attendance at the September sunflower festival at Beaver Dam Farm was down slightly, but it was the best year yet for food and craft vendors, said Candace Monaghan, owner of the Buchanan farm.

She said it seemed like everyone had money to spend after months of being shut inside. Since the festival’s capacity was limited to 1,000 people, Monaghan said counters kept track of how many people entered and exited the farm. The gates were closed at times, typically for no more than 15 minutes, she said.

The biggest change this year was the introduction of online ticketing, which allowed visitors to buy tickets for a two-hour time slot. Monaghan said it helped with the flow of crowds throughout the day, and she might continue the practice in the future.

Canceling the festival was not an option, Monaghan said. She thought to herself: “We’re going to have it one way or another, but what do we need to do to have it the correct way so everybody’s safe?”

That meant adding sanitizing stations, requiring masks when close to others and skipping certain activities, like face painting and the corn pit. Overall she was pleased with how things went, as were festival-goers.

“We had lots of positive feedback,” she said. “So many people were just happy to be outside and not be cooped up.”

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Casey Fabris covers business for The Roanoke Times, where she has been a reporter since 2015. Previously, Casey covered Franklin County. She can be reached at (540) 981-3234 or casey.fabris@roanoke.com.

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