Area you-pick operations bracing for busy season
Each fall from New Jersey to Virginia, hundreds of summer weekend you-pickers swell to thousands as apples and pumpkins, like the leaves of trees, color farms that straddle as many as 250 acres or more.
The months-long Super Bowl of Mid-Atlantic agritourism largely gets under way at August’s end, easily filling parking lots with hundreds of cars and drawing crowds impressive enough to encourage tailgating.
This pandemic year, tourism is slowly resuming at a time when locals have been driving you-pick sales up. Canceled events could turn would-be festival-goers into you-pickers. You-pick farmers are hoping that former busloads of students who are now in an education delivery transition visit the farms with their families.
Farmers are preparing to safeguard the health of attendees in ways that vary widely and are often aligned with state restrictions.
Some are waiving entry fees and pre-purchase requirements at several access points during extended hours. Others are scheduling limited Internet reservations and requiring prepayments during typical weekend hours.
You-pick farms are also spacing you-pickers among the farm, providing a choice of vegetables as well as varied fruits.
They are requiring that those who touch fruits and vegetables purchase them, and they are measuring payments more swiftly by bushels and pecks rather than bags measured by weight.
States such as Pennsylvania are allowing farm operators to decide how to best protect employees and consumers from a risk of contracting coronavirus, Department of Agriculture spokesperson Shannon Powers said.
“Farm markets have stayed open widely through the season and creatively offered options for families who want to buy local and enjoy an outdoor activity together,” Powers said.
You-pick growers such as Josh Grim of Grim Orchard & Family Farms in Breinigsville, Pa., and Barron Shaw of Shaw Orchards in White Hall, Md., have so far enjoyed blueberry and cherry season successes reflected in increased sales, they said.
What distinguishes the fall apple harvest from other fruit sales is the temperate climate and the fact that fall festivals, the changing of the leaves and pumpkin season occur around the same time.
Pennsylvania and Virginia rank fifth and sixth in the nation, respectively, in apple production, while New Jersey and Maryland are in the top 20.
You-pick farms, like farm markets, are part of a Mid-Atlantic agritourism industry that includes farm-based bed & breakfasts, wineries, fall festivals and more.
Locals in Virginia, at least, literally share 50-50 in supporting it.
Tourism in Virginia is the sixth largest private employer. Agritourism specifically has a statewide economic impact of more than $3 billion, around half of which is spent by locals, according to a Virginia Tech report.
Many who might otherwise gather inside of a supermarket inspecting pre-picked, processed and delivered apples instead spend time in the open outdoors plucking them straight from the trees that render them.
You-pickers can purchase fresh-pressed cider, slushies, jams and jellies, candy and caramel apples, cider doughnuts and other prepared items in which the fruit is the star ingredient.
Activities, like the prepared foods and beverages, vary from one farm to another: Sahl’s Father Son Farm in Egg Harbor City, N.J., offers hay rides and mazes, this year for small groups of people who attend together, Jeremy Sahl said.
You-pickers at Baugher’s Orchard in Westminster, Md., are you be able to watch farm animal feedings, Marjorie Baugher said.
“People are looking for something to do, and they want to get out in the country,” Baugher said.
In order to maintain social distancing on his 100-acre Berryville, Va., farm, Bill Mackintosh said he is scheduling 300 people per day and spacing them out among it. In 2019, he said, his farm welcomed 700 to 1,000 people per day, many of them from Northern Virginia and Washington D.C. alone. He then lost business after crowds during this year’s cherry season prompted him to enact measures that were too strict, he said.
“They’re anxious to be out. They value the open space. They feel a farm is a safe place to go. And they value food,” Kurt Alstede of Alstede Farms added.
You-picking is also educational, Shaw said. The activity provides youngsters opportunities to interact with nature and gain a better understanding of how farmers plant seeds and nurture their trees, how they get the most out of their plantings even when conditions are less than ideal.
Orchardists were this year challenged by a late spring frost that killed fruits, a July that Grim described as the “hottest on record,” one that makes apples sweeter.
That heat was in some areas followed by relentless rains that can dampen sweetness.
Mid-Atlantic students are this year, depending upon state and district decisions, adhering to classroom-based, distance learning and hybrid fall semester requirements.
Private schools are often following public school decisions with regard to education delivery method or are deciding based upon which method is most conducive to student learning at specific grade levels.
Health safety is also on the minds of travelers. The Virginia Tourism Corporation as part of its 2020-2021 marketing campaign has since July been spending a dedicated $14 million on a marketing campaign targeted to statewide residents and the nearby drive travel market that comprises 82 percent of all travelers to the state.
The state each year hosts some 45 million travelers and on a gradually declining month-to-month scale from September to November welcomes roughly 40 to 30 percent of them.
Drive traffic in Maryland has already returned to near 2019 levels after being down more than 50 percent in April, Maryland Transportation Authority Public Affairs Manager John Sales said.
Average weekly traffic for the week of Aug. 10 was down 17 percent on state highways and 19 percent on the Maryland toll roads, Sales said.
The Virginia Tourism Organization for the fiscal year ended June 30 operated with a near $28.5 million budget, most of it from the Commonwealth of Virginia general fund comprised of income, business taxes and more. Of that, nearly $20 million was spent on marketing and partnership marketing and another $4 million on visitor services.
The agency is reserving money from this year’s marketing budget for next fiscal year, Brand Manager Lindsey Norment said.
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