Illinois growers anticipate visitors will gravitate to the country for fun, safe outdoor activities even with COVID mitigation.
Last year, apple orchards, pumpkin patches, U-pick operations and corn mazes became go-to destinations across the state when many traditional fall events were canceled or scaled back. New visitors joined regular customers as many growers experienced increased sales. Along with tasty food, people valued farm venues and country experiences.
“We definitely saw a ton of new customers. People wanted something to do, and a lot of farms filled the gap. We had good attendance. I hope they’ll come back, and we get repeat customers,” said Craig Tanner, who owns and manages Tanners Orchard with his sister, Jennifer.
Tanners Orchard, near Speer, is open daily for apple season with pumpkins available in late September. Follow the orchard on Facebook at tannersappleorchard.
Agritourism operations reported 17% growth in customers in 2020, based on the results of a University of Illinois agricultural economics survey. While some experienced growth, others reported mixed outcomes due to canceled classes, programs and private events, like school tours and weddings.
As for COVID mitigation requirements, especially for indoor activities that return this fall, growers are keeping some of the practices and adaptations they added in 2020.
“We’re trying to offer as many outside activities as possible,” said Mac Condill, general manager of the Great Pumpkin Patch near Arthur.
The specialty farm’s 14 acres of diverse pumpkins, mazes, food and entertainment will all be outside. The on-farm Homestead Bakery will again sell baked goods and other food items outside “on the front porch,” Condill said.
The Great Pumpkin Patch opens Sept. 22. Follow the specialty farm on Facebook at thegreatpumpkinpatch.
The U of I survey found the pandemic changed business practices at some agritourism operations. Respondents reported they relied on more social media, grew website use and increased e-commerce.
At Champaign’s Curtis Orchard and Pumpkin Patch, the family owners assessed last season’s new practices not only for health and safety aspects, but also for business purposes, according to Randy Graham, manager and co-owner.
“We said, ‘Hey, let’s look at it for efficiency. It will make the public safer and make the place function better,’” Graham said.
Open for the season, the orchard is active on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and LinkedIn.
Visitors are finding the outdoor checkout stands returned, especially for pulling wagons to carry purchases the from fields and orchard. Graham noted the outdoor stands reduced traffic congestion in the on-farm store.
At the Great Pumpkin Patch, the farm’s Bridle Shop, which sells gift and décor, will again have one-way traffic for entering and leaving the store.
Again this fall, Condill, Tanner and Graham request customers wear masks indoors, based on Illinois and Centers for Disease Control guidelines. Graham noted about half of his customers already wore masks before Gov. J.B. Pritzker reissued an indoor mask requirement Aug. 26.
“Our employees are all wearing masks,” he added.
Wide-open spaces provide plenty of social distancing at the Great Pumpkin Patch, and the Condill family has thought of ideas to provide visitors even more elbow room.
“We’ve spent 18 months thinking of ways to open the farm up even more,” Condill said. “We’ve almost doubled the sizes of picnic areas.”
Another pandemic-related issue of having enough employees finds Tanner and Graham on different ends of the spectrum.
Tanner hired many repeat employees and high school students to work evenings and on weekends. For other business hours?
“It ends up being a lot of retirees who want a part-time job,” he said.
But Graham said the worker shortage caught him off guard after having sufficient staff last year.
“In 40-plus years, I’ve never seen it so difficult to hire people. We’ve been open since July 20 and business has been good. We just need more help to give people the experience we’re known for.”
All three growers anticipate – and hope – visitors again flock to their agritourism farms for apples, pumpkins and more.
“We’ll provide the beauty of farms to people,” Condill concluded.