Pandemic ‘devastating’ for agritourism industry
This year was supposed to be a turning point for Crow Vineyard & Winery in Kent County, Md.
Judy and Roy Crow believed 2020 was going to be the year when all of their businesses finally broke even — a milestone for a multipronged family farm that began diversifying 13 years ago. In addition to a wine operation that includes retail sales and farm tastings, the Crows run a three-bedroom bed and breakfast and a grass-fed Angus beef operation.
“We had such high hopes,” Judy Crow said last week.
Enter COVID-19. After the global pandemic spread across the country last month, closing schools and all non-essential businesses, the winery had to accept a number of event cancelations. It also had to halt the training of two or three new employees the Crows were bringing on to help manage their summer peak.
“I had to say, ‘I’m sorry I can’t keep this moving forward because I don’t have customers to train you with,’” she said.
The Crows are like many agritourism operation owners dealing with precipitous declines in business due to the pandemic. While some produce and livestock farmers are seeing a boost in business due to rabid demand from housebound consumers looking to stock up on groceries, agritourism operations, particularly those focused on large events, have been hammered.
“It really depends on the organizational business model for each farm,” said Suzi Spahr, executive director of the North American Farmers Direct Marketing Association in Indianapolis. “Groups, as we all know, are not coming together.”
It’s been a financial bloodbath for Mike Hynson, owner of Thousand Acre Farm, a popular wedding, orchard and waterfowl hunting venue in Middletown, Del. As of two weeks ago, he’d postponed 17 weddings through March and April. He’s offering $1,000 discounts to anyone who wants to book an event on the farm. Plans to enclose a patio outside of his venue barn and build a new equipment barn have been halted.
“Oh my God, it’s unbelievable,” he said. “It’s been devastating.”
But for a farm that relies on weddings, the greatest impact, he said, will likely be felt in the future.
“It’s also affecting new opportunities for us because no one wants to come out and look at us for events in 2021,” Hynson said.
The day he spoke with the Delmarva Farmer, the farm had scheduled three showings for future weddings. All were canceled.
“It’s hitting me probably in a different way than a lot of other people,” he said.
In Garrett County, Md., Deep Creek Lavender Farm is still waiting to see the virus’s effect. The picturesque, 8-acre operation holds events, yoga classes and sells products made with lavender. Their farm doesn’t open to visitors until Memorial Day weekend. Co-owner Anne Davidson is still waiting to see if Gov. Larry Hogan reopens the state’s economy in time.
“We have not even set up our schedule because we have absolutely no idea when our start date might be,” she said.
To prepare for any loss of business, Davidson began offering free shipping and other incentives for products on the farm’s website. Business has grown, but it’s come at a cost, she said. She recently cringed when a Colorado customer purchased a large order, requiring the farm to pay $35 for shipping.
“At the same time, we’re all in this together, and (we’re) taking a hit for some of it because we know it will help people,” Davidson said. “Lavender’s very soothing, and it’s very calming, and during this time a lot of people are looking for that.”
But the majority of the farm’s business is fueled by Deep Creek Lake, and if tourism is restricted — or tourists simply stay home — this summer, it will have an impact on the farm’s bottom line, she said. Fortunately, the farm has no debt and very low overhead.
“We just feel like we’re in limbo,” she said.
Back at Crow Vineyard & Winery, the farm’s diversification is keeping the operation stable, Judy Crow said. The farm launched a curbside wine and food service that’s been popular with patrons and meat sales have exploded. To keep their employees going, she’s coming up with other tasks such as window washing and defrosting the farm’s freezers. She may have them paint.
“Finding work for our employees is overwhelming. We wanted them to be waiting on customers and making sales,” she said.
The hits could keep coming, however. The Crows are still paying rent for Crow Wine Cellars, their retail location at Queenstown Premium Outlets. That may need to change if COVID-19’s reign continues for long.
But she said she’s thankful they didn’t focus their agritourism business around large events and weddings. Crow Vineyard & Winery can still sell.
“I’m keeping my fingers crossed that that’s going to keep us going forward,” she said. “We’re committed. We’re going to succeed. We’re going to get through this.”
1-800-634-5021 410-822-3965 Fax- 410-822-5068
P.O. Box 2026 Easton, MD 21601-8925