Safety Starts With Masks

Strawberries are the only crop Tom’s Farm Market in Huntley, IL, offers for u-pick. And they are, said marketing manager Deanna Reeves, “A big part of our business; we get a lot of people coming in from the city to pick” on the farm’s eight or so strawberry acres.

With or without COVID-19, forgoing u-pick was not an option for Tom’s. Many smaller farms don’t have the option to hire extra labor to pick fruit that might otherwise rot in the field, as AgWeek reports. “Strawberries are perishable and if people don’t pick them, they go to waste,” Reeves said. The real question, then, was how to adjust. Reeves started with the state’s safety recommendations, setting up hand-washing stations around the farm and mandating mask wearing when social distancing isn’t possible. Then she devised a more thorough set of rules to post on the farm’s website.

These include forgoing containers brought from home, not touching any berry you don’t intend to pick, and sticking to assigned (and spaced) picking rows. Visitors don’t have to wear masks when they’re out in the fields. But masks are required for anyone getting a lift in a farm wagon; such rides are essential, says Reeves, for elderly folks especially, who are unable to make the long, sweaty trek to the strawberry beds.

Although many farms now prohibit sampling the goods before you get them home, it’s hard to convince children to wait. Instead, “We’re asking people to [collect] the uneaten parts of the berries and throw them out, so a little kid isn’t picking something up that was in someone else’s mouth,” said Reeves.

For the most part, visitors “have been pretty receptive and understanding” about the farm’s safety measures, although anyone who feels like they don’t go far enough has the option to purchase pre-picked berries from the farm market. While usually a weekend-heavy activity, “Everyone’s been home and stuck and wanting something to do outside so weekdays have been a lot busier than in the past,” Reeves said. “We’ve had a couple of days where we had to stop people from coming into the market because it’s gotten so crowded.”

Being Extra Careful

Vermont’s Cedar Circle Farm & Education Center in Thetford has been requiring a lot of the same safety measures that Tom’s implemented, although masks are a must even out in the field and, based on guidance out of Cornell University, people are allowed to bring their own containers; they just have to set them on the scale themselves, so farm employees don’t have to touch them to get their pre-filled weight.

Another difference: Visitors are asked to mark where in a row they stopped picking. “We don’t want [new] people to go over the same area if the [previous] people have been breathing on it,” said marketing and communications coordinator Leona Bergman.

Although Cedar Circle also offers u-pick flowers, blueberries, and pumpkins, strawberries are its most popular crop — and a make up a huge chunk of its annual revenue. That means the fields can get full, fast, especially on weekends, and picked out quickly. For these reasons, Bergman says the farm has been encouraging visitors to visit the farm’s Facebook page or call before they head over, to get the latest on the day’s picking conditions.

For u-pick flowers, already underway, the farm has been sanitizing shears and other equipment visitors may borrow.  And so far, all the various protocols seem to be working to keep everyone feeling safe. Still, “We’re taking it one day at a time,” Bergman said, and staying open to ways u-pick for blueberries and pumpkins might be different. For example, “We probably won’t do our big pumpkin festival” in October, she said.

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