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Agritourism farms offer new options, prepare for future

Issue Date: June 3, 2020
By Ching Lee
The owner of Bishop’s Pumpkin Farm in Yuba County will start planting pumpkins this month, and says he expects his operation to open this fall with some changes in response to the pandemic.
Photo/Ching Lee

As more businesses shut down by COVID-19 move to reopen with new protocols, farms that rely on agricultural tourism as a core business try to find their footing after having to cancel events and other on-farm activities.

Many of the state's agritourism operations are refocusing their marketing strategy by selling crops directly to customers, including through online sales, community-supported agriculture subscription boxes, and pick-up and delivery services, said Penny Leff, University of California, Davis, agritourism coordinator.

Farms with U-pick operations have stayed open, she said, though under new state guidelines during the pandemic. CSA memberships have increased, and growers with farm markets are "doing well," she added, though some farmers markets may be seeing slower traffic due to social-distancing rules.

"They're doing a whole lot of drive-through markets," Leff said, in which customers preorder and pick up without leaving their cars. "There's drive-through flower farms where they're charging people $20 a car to come drive and look at the tulips and look at the sunflowers."

Orange County farmer Kenny Tanaka said moving to an online ordering system with a drive-through produce stand "kind of saved us."

Tanaka's farm lost business early in the lockdown when school tours were canceled. His produce stand gets much of its sales during farm tours. By turning it into a curbside pick-up site, he said he's been able to recoup much of the losses from the canceled tours.

"We had a really good response," he said.

But with lockdowns easing and people feeling more comfortable going back to stores, Tanaka said his online sales have slipped about 10% to 15% a week. Having doubled his CSA business and with a waiting list of people still wanting to join, he said he thinks "that'll keep us going until everything goes back to normal." Additional revenue will also come from his strawberry U-pick, which will soon expand to other crops such as cherry tomatoes, blackberries, carrots, corn and watermelon.

Tanaka said his concern now is with his fall pumpkin patch, which he describes as "our make-or-break time," because it attracts some 15,000 school kids on field trips—trips that probably won't happen.

That would affect not only his farm but a Central Valley grower who produces some of his pumpkins, he said, noting he probably won't need half the volume of pumpkins he typically buys from that farm. Also affected will be his fall vegetable U-pick, which gets much of its business from schools and weekend crowds, and where he will need to "cut back quite a bit."

With pumpkin planting season just a week away and the farm opening in September, Wayne Bishop of Bishop's Pumpkin Farm in Yuba County said he plans to grow his usual acreage of pumpkins as if the farm will open in the fall with some modifications.

Until last week, Bishop said he wasn't sure he'd be able to open at all, but was encouraged by the governor's announcement including theme parks in the state's Phase 3 reopening. Bishop said his pumpkin patch, which features rides and other similar entertainment, fits in the category of theme parks, so he'll be taking note how those businesses handle crowds.

Agritourism represents "a large percentage" of the farm's income, with 75% of it related to retail food sales, which Bishop said the farm "should be able to do" along with selling pumpkins. He said his family is even debating whether to plant more pumpkins, because during the 2008 recession, the farm saw increased attendance as people canceled big trips in favor of smaller day trips.

"We're fairly certain that the school field trips will be much less than we're accustomed to, but we know that the public is hungry to get out and do things," Bishop said. "We're hopeful that we're able to open up in something that seems normal and we're able to meet that demand."

Ventura County farmer Craig Underwood said his two roadside markets and U-pick operations have experienced increased business, but he said he has not been able to offset losses from an Easter festival and a "very heavy schedule" of school tours that had to be canceled. Farmers market sales, he noted, have "dropped significantly" due to distancing and sanitation requirements.

To drive more sales, the farm restarted a CSA program that it discontinued years ago, but Underwood said his roadside markets and U-pick remain his "main attraction" and were "busy from the day we opened."

"People want to get out, and they want to do it in a safe environment, and we offer a safe, clean, healthy environment," he said.

According to the state retail food code, produce stands don't require a permit from the Environmental Health Division unless they provide samples of cut produce or sell other items, such as bottled water and value-added products. Leff said farmers should check with their counties about rules on signage and parking.

Tulare County farmer Bob McKellar said he had to cancel school tours to his citrus farm his spring, but said he's keeping wedding contracts booked for the fall. He's outlined options for the wedding parties on how they can proceed with their plans, including restricting the number of guests. So far, he's had no cancellations, he said.

McKellar said he plans to reopen his farm for regular tours starting July 4. Before that, he said he plans to open for a drive-through tour on Father's Day that will allow people to view different displays and aspects of the orchard while remaining in their cars.

At Naylor's Organic Family Farm Stay in Dinuba, Nori Naylor said the operation had its "best year ever" in 2019 and a busy February for bookings. But she said she and her husband Mike decided to shut down in March, due to health concerns for her elderly mother.

The Naylors did open their tree-fruit U-pick last month and "had our best day ever" for an opening, she said, as "people are just eager to get out and do something." But income from the U-pick will not be able to make up for the loss of business from the farm stay, she said. The couple is now focused on increasing traffic to their U-pick with a new marketing platform, she said, and selling surplus fruit to another farmer.

"The way it's impacted us the most is that we are missing out on being able to host people and share our farm with people, because the interaction is now 6 feet apart with masks and gloves," Naylor said. "We're not doing the things that we would normally do with our U-pick, where we're much more personable and interactive and welcoming. This is so not fun."

(Ching Lee is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at clee@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.




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