Alex Toth of Delhi, holding son Grayson, 2, with son Jackson, 6, and daughter Allison, 3, chooses sunflowers at RAM Farms’ U-pick flower field in Turlock. U-picks have been a popular outdoor activity for families during the pandemic, and the trend is expected to continue this year. (Ching Lee)

By Ching Lee, Assistant Editor, Ag Alert

Reprinted with Permission from California Farm Bureau Federation

Pandemic cabin fever continues to drive people out to the country, and farmers who welcome agritourism activities say they expect the trend will hold, with farms becoming a go-to destination.

Last year saw the cancellation of many farm festivals, tours and workshops, some of which went virtual or were greatly scaled back. More of these events have returned this year with some modifications. Wineries, which shuttered tasting rooms last year, have reopened. U-pick farms and farm stands have become “very popular,” even in pandemic months of 2020, said Rachael Callahan, agritourism coordinator at the University of California, Davis.

“This year, with the return of larger on-farm gatherings and other agritourism, people are eager to get outside, engage with their community and connect with their local farmers and ranchers,” she said.

Though farms are still not giving many school tours, agritourism operators say business has been on the rise, especially for U-picks, pumpkin patches and other farm venues as people continue to seek getaways in safe outdoor settings.

At RAM Farms in Turlock last week, farmer Ron Macedo was working on his corn maze, a key feature of his fall pumpkin patch, which he said delivered “the best year ever” in 2020. With people still looking for outdoor activities and entertainment, Macedo said he anticipates “another pretty good year” for his farm, which also runs a U-pick flower field in the summer and an ice ink and Christmas tree lot in the winter.

“We’re optimistic that things are going to be well because people still need to get outside and have fun, so we’re excited to fill that niche,” he said.

He planted the U-pick flower field and built an indoor, self-serve farm stand several years ago to expand his agritourism season—and to “keep people close and excited about RAM Farms” beyond pumpkin season. Now people come every day to the farm to buy flowers and produce, he said.

Not knowing what to expect amid the pandemic lockdown last year, Macedo said he was “very worried” about setting up the ice rink, which takes “a lot of time and money.” But business boomed and he sold out of Christmas trees, so he has expanded the ice rink and plans to add more activities this year, he said.

Lynette Sonne, founder of Farmstead Ed and the San Luis Obispo County Farm Trail, described the trail’s inaugural Open Farm Day in July as “wildly successful,” with sold-out attendance of about 300 guests who toured the region’s farms and participated in tastings, workshops and other activities. With people wanting to stay in wide-open spaces, farm stays in the region were sold out the weekend of the event and continue to be sold out, she noted.

Even before the state reopening, Jennifer Tallent, who runs The Grove on 41 in Templeton with her mother, Karen Tallent, said she saw an uptick in their agritourism business. She said people were calling to see the venue and the farm, which grows olives for oil, and there were more inquiries for tours.

The farm generally depends on weddings and other private events. It hosted just one wedding before the pandemic lockdown last year and didn’t host another until this past May.

“Folks are coming back and wanting to have their parties,” Jennifer Tallent said. “They’re wanting to have their weddings. They want to get together, because they’ve had 18 months of seclusion, and they’re finally comfortable.”

When their events business dried up last year, the farm hosted more private tours and tour groups, which “really saved us in 2020,” Karen Tallent said. Their vacation rental, which “stayed steadily busy,” provided some income, Jennifer Tallent said. Increased sales of their olive oil in the form of corporate gifts also helped, they said.

Bookings for weddings, special events and farm stays at Hartley Farms in San Miguel, which grows a variety of tree fruits and nuts, are now “back to normal,” said farmer Barbara Goodrich. But business this year will not make up for losses sustained in 2020, when the farm hosted zero parties, she noted.

“It will take us years to recover from that shutdown, even though this year and next year look to be normal,” she said.

Goodrich said even though the farm picked up more business as a farm stay last year, weddings make up “a large chunk of our income.”

With anticipation that schools will not be fully back to in-person learning this year, Jeri Seifert, who runs a pumpkin patch and a choose-and-cut Christmas tree farm in Dixon, said she decided not to open her farm for organized school tours. Instead, she’ll offer smaller private tours for groups that want them. Her farm typically closes to the public during the summer off-season, but she said she decided to open the boutique last week for what she called a “Christmas in July” sale. It was a way “to get people out to the farm,” she said, and to gear up for the fall season by clearing the store of items that haven’t sold.

Yolo County farmer Fred Manas, who grows peaches and operates a custom meat-processing facility and meat market, said much of his agritourism business depends on school tours, which he has not had for more than a year. In the past, whenever he would send out an email blast promoting a certain peach variety that’s in season, “they would come,” he said. Students from UC Davis also use the farm for research and fruit studies or tour his meat-processing plant, he noted.

“But since COVID last year and this year, I haven’t seen any people, because the kids aren’t in school,” Manas said. “There’s just nobody around, no students. Everything’s on Zoom or some other way.”

Solano County sheep rancher Robin Lynde said she has started to open her farm again to some of her farm club members and has taught a couple of small, in-person weaving classes so far this year. Because her workshop is small and people are in close contact, she said she “got nervous” about holding the classes and decided to limit them to people who have been vaccinated.

She’s done some classes through Zoom, but she acknowledged the hands-on nature of weaving makes virtual learning more difficult. Other than the classes, Lynde said, she has not held her annual open house for the general public and has hosted no field trips. These in-person events represent a third of her agritourism activities, she noted.

“People want to do field trips and I just haven’t really decided what to do,” she said. “We’ll have to see how things look in the next few months.”

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