child playing in pumpkin patch
Vedha Atyam, 2, plays at the hay-bale maze at Perry’s Pumpkin Acres in Sacramento. In addition to operating this pumpkin patch, farmer John Perry grows pumpkins for other agritourism operations—some of which chose to close this year, which Perry says may have boosted traffic to his patch. (Ching Lee)

By Ching Lee
Assistant Editor, Ag Alert

Reprinted with Permission from the California Farm Bureau Federation

With many entertainment venues still shuttered due to the pandemic, outings to the local pumpkin patch remain a popular activity this fall—though many farms have scrambled to adapt to new health and safety requirements.

Some farms have chosen not to open to the public at all. Others have revamped their spaces and scaled back certain activities to allow for physical distancing. Additional changes include signs reminding visitors of face-mask requirements and installations of more sanitation and handwashing stations.

“My sense is that most of them are moving forward with at least doing the pumpkin patches and realigning the corn mazes, making them for distancing rules, not opening some attractions,” said Penny Leff, agritourism coordinator for the University of California, Davis.

Rather than hosting large harvest festivals, for example, some farms are holding smaller-scale events such as workshops, she said. Farm owners who want to enter the agritourism business have not abandoned their plans, she said, as they see people’s interest in farms as a “healthy family activity.”

John Perry, who operates Perry’s Pumpkin Acres in Sacramento, said he’s been “pleasantly pleased with the reception” from his customers, noting his sales have actually climbed this year. That’s not to say he didn’t struggle with some of the decisions he had to make leading up to the fall season.

“I think the biggest thing … is the uncertainty farmers had starting the year: Do you plant or don’t plant?” he said.

Having planted about the same amount of pumpkins as he did in prior years, Perry said he initially feared he had overplanted. He typically sells about 80% of his pumpkins to other pumpkin patches, some of which decided not to open this year—including his biggest customer, a farm that caters to school tours and has seen that business evaporate. But he said he figured “there will still be demand from different sources,” especially with some farms not opening.

As it turned out, “customer demand has been exceptionally good,” he said.

He avoided offerings such as hay-bale pyramids, bounce houses, petting zoos and hayrides but kept the corn maze, decisions he said were driven largely by liability concerns.

“I’m very pleased with the year, because it could’ve been a complete disaster,” Perry said, adding that unless more restrictions are imposed, “I think we can operate at this level.”

For Markie Battaglia of Mountain Valley Ranch in San Diego County, not opening was never an option, as “making a living is essential, so we had planned on moving forward the whole time.”

The farm has kept most of its usual attractions, including a corn maze, petting zoo and pony rides, but it dropped hayrides due to distancing rules.

Battaglia said she wasn’t sure how people would react to the changes, but said “we’ve been busier than ever,” most notably on weekdays, as people try to avoid weekend crowds.

“I think when you build it, they will come,” she said.

Although Tanaka Farms in Orange County has been able to open to the public, Kenny Tanaka said he expects the farm’s gross income will shrink about 60% because county requirements have limited crowds to the farm. Whereas weekend attendance in normal years would exceed 6,000 to 7,000 people, he said, people now must register for a drive-through pumpkin farm experience, which has reduced crowds to about 2,000 people.

Gone are school tours, which were a major revenue source, though people may still book groups of eight to 16 people, he said.

Scheduling has been key to keeping lines short and backups to a minimum, Tanaka said, adding “we’re slowly getting better” at handling more people “in a safe manner.” The biggest struggle, he said, has been finding enough employees to work as tour guides, as the county health department “didn’t want people just hanging out in the pumpkin patch.”

With the extra costs that went into the new setup, including laying gravel around the whole farm for the drive-through experience, Tanaka said he’s hoping to break even on the pumpkin patch this year. To earn more from his investment, he said the farm plans to do a lighted winter tour around the farm this year, in addition to its usual Christmas tree sales.

Usually open 360 days a year for its U-pick and various festivals, Murray Family Farms in Kern County had been closed to the public during the pandemic until this month, when it reopened to allow admission to its pumpkin patch, which farmer Steve Murray said “was our intention from the beginning.”

But the farm won’t be holding its annual October Fun Fest, nor will it be hosting school tours, which typically involve 20,000 to 25,000 students during the fall.

The county health department found popular attractions such as hayrides, bounce pillow, the arcade, slides, turf hill, corn pool, ball toss, crafts and face painting problematic, so they won’t be offered this year. Rather, a reduced admission price will now include a free pumpkin and activities such as a one-way corn maze and sunflower trail. To help control attendance, the farm is selling weekend tickets with designated arrival times.

“This whole liability thing is a big issue,” Murray said, “and businesses that are perceived to be safe are going to rebound faster than businesses that are perceived to not be safe.”

Knowing that they wouldn’t be able to safely distance people on their 6-acre farm, David Osteen, who operates Clayton Valley Pumpkin Farm in Contra Costa County with his wife Sharon and daughter Deborah Munch, said the family made the “very tough decision” months ago not to open this year, though initially they struggled with their options.

“It was on, off, on, off,” Osteen said, recalling that at the time, there was speculation the summer heat would slow the coronavirus. “Remember that? And then, oops, it didn’t quite happen that way.”

That local schools remain closed cemented their decision, as school field trips represent “a big part of our business,” Munch said, adding the farm won’t be open for Christmas tree sales, either. Instead, it has opened an online store to sell specialty holiday merchandise to try to bring in some revenue. It’s a new feature Osteen said the farm may keep up all year.

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