Illinois agritourism operations changed how they did business, added new policies and gave people outdoor options, but worry about continued pandemic fallout, according to a University of Illinois agricultural economics survey released Wednesday.

Breanna Ellison, U of I agricultural economics associate professor, discussed an agritourism survey during the virtual Illinois Specialty Crop Conference (ISCC).

The first virtual ISCC drew 600 registrants and 40 exhibitors to a virtual exhibit hall and offered 65 on-demand video sessions and 18 live events that include keynote speakers, live networking and awards.

About 43 agritourism businesses from 27 counties responded to the online survey done in cooperation with Illinois Farm Bureau and the Illinois Specialty Growers Association. Respondents averaged 65.8 acres with more than half operating commercial pumpkin patches. That was followed by vegetables, berries, apples and flowers.

On average, most respondents anticipated a 5.7% increase in profitability and 17% growth in customers. They also reported a 17.7% bump in production costs. “On average, they expected a positive change in profitability,” Ellison noted.

“People were looking for outdoor activities that are safe and they want to support local businesses that are open during the pandemic,” she continued.

However, nearly 42% said they were concerned about profitability or whether they would break even despite an increase in profits. Only 30% of respondents indicated they weren’t worried.

One respondent indicated the business brought in half its 2019 and experienced increased sanitation expenses and high labor costs related to more sanitation.

Respondents also shared mixed outcomes. For example, farm stand business fared well, while private events, classes and programs were cancelled.

“So, operations highly reliant on large events, such as weddings and school tours, those operations are really hurting during the pandemic,” she said. “They’re having a hard time and are likely to do so with state mitigation limits.”

A majority of agritourism businesses added policies. New mask policies were the most common. About 88% added customer mask policies with most asking customers to wear masks everywhere. Nearly all required employees to wear masks with 30% requiring employees to wear masks all the time while on the job. More than half the businesses had or will have employee health policy.

About 90% reported increased cleaning and sanitation of their operations, and many posted signs with COVID safety guidelines and information.

Liability related to COVID surfaced as a major concern. About three-quarters reported being concerned or very concerned they might be sued, Ellison noted. But only 7% had customers sign liability waivers and about 5% bought more liability insurance.

Business practices changed at some agritourism operations. Respondents noted a 49% increase in social media uses, 44% increase in website use and 42% increase in e-commerce. “We heard a lot had to adopt cashless payment systems,” Ellison said.

Pandemic concerns for agritourism continue into 2021. “On the whole, looking at a lockdown over the winter concerns all agritourism,” Ellison said. “Several indicated they’re OK now, but don’t know how this can keep up.”