Not ‘falling’ apart: Autumn agritourism adjusts to pandemic, health guidelines

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A woman and a man look at pumpkins outside of a barn.
Lauren Leeser and Daniel Smith look over the pumpkins at Nickajack Farms, in North Lawrence, Oct. 14. (Sarah Donaldson photo)

Despite the pandemic, attendance and interest hasn’t been lacking at many agritourism farms this fall.

“I have actually seen an increase in customers,” said Debbie Sebolt, owner of Nickajack Farms, in North Lawrence, Ohio. “You do feel a little bit safer outside than you do doing indoor activities, but I also think that people just want to get out and do stuff.”

Sharon Gram, who owns Arrowhead Orchard, in Paris, Ohio, with her husband, Terry Gram, said the orchard has also seen a huge increase in customers.

“People have been coming from out of state,” she said.

But even though customers are still interested, farms have still had to make some adjustments.

At Ramseyer Farms, in Wooster, Ohio, activities are spread out further than normal. Capacity, both in buildings and on the farm as a whole, is limited. Guests and staff where masks when inside or not socially distanced. And a team works all day to sanitize touch points throughout the farm, said Jenna Ramseyer, operations manager for the farm.

“For the most part, people have been pretty accepting of it,” Ramseyer said.

Health departments

When planning fall activities for this year, Gram said she and her husband talked to the Stark County Health Department, their local health department. The department directed them to the state guidelines and helped them figure out how to best follow them.

“Ohio has been very up front and clear with what they are mandating or suggesting, and the health department has been very helpful,” Gram said.

Sebolt said she also talked to the health department early on. The health department said their plan should be fine — the farm’s activities are spread out across several acres, with plenty of space for social distancing.

“It has really helped to have that room,” Sebolt said.

Eric Barrett, of Ohio State University Extension, said working with local health departments has been essential for farms offering agritourism activities this year.

“A lot of them [health departments] are already on record saying this is one of the safest things to do to be outside to enjoy fall,” Barrett said.

Challenges

There are some challenges, not unlike what agritourism has been dealing with throughout the spring and summer this year. Ramseyer said the farm has had to add more employees for cleaning and sanitizing different areas on the farm, and has spent more on hand sanitizer than ever. There are now 60 stations around the farm.

Sebolt said, this year, Nickajack Farms has hired a few people just to go around the farm non-stop, all day, sanitizing surfaces.

Nickajack Farms cut the capacity on its hayrides drastically and added plexiglass shields between families.

The hayrides, which used to fit about 40 people, are now limited to about 20-25 people at a maximum. To adjust for this, Sebolt said, they have more tractors running each day.

“That was a huge thing to try and figure out; how to still get enough people on hayrides and keep socially distanced,” Sebolt said. “It’s an increase in labor that we didn’t know that we would have, but it’s worked out well.”

And capacity overall has been a challenge for Ramseyer Farms on weekends. The farm added more hours on weekdays, but also had limited the overall capacity on the farm. On the weekends, the farm has been hitting its capacity easily.

“It’s really hard to tell people that have driven distances to come here that we’re sold out of tickets,” Ramseyer said.

Two boys sit in an oversized chair in front of a barn.
Ryan Williams, 9, and Jared Williams, 6, sit in a chair at Nickajack Farms, in North Lawrence, Ohio, Oct. 14. (Sarah Donaldson photo)

Online

Some farms are selling online tickets this year. Nickajack Farms decided to add online ticket sales to cut down on the admissions line during the pandemic. A little more than half of their customers this year have bought tickets online.

“Online sales have been great,” Sebolt said. “That’s probably something we’ll continue to do even after the pandemic is over.”

Ramseyer Farms has sold tickets online in the past, but this year, the farm is strongly encouraging people to use the online option to buy weekend tickets in advance.

“We do sell out of those tickets,” Ramseyer said.

Arrowhead Orchard, on the other hand, has not been selling tickets in advance, and has not had to limit overall capacity yet. The Applehouse Farm Market on the orchard is limited to 20 customers at once, but the farm is spread out over 100 acres, which leaves room for social distancing outside.

“We’ve had a good year. If people keep coming, we may find what our limit is for 100 acres,” Gram said.

Changes

One activity that did not survive the pandemic-related changes was Nickajack Farms’ corn box. It’s a building filled with loose corn for children to play in, like a sandbox. They couldn’t have that this year, because, Sebolt said, they didn’t have a good way to sanitize all of the corn after every use.

So, for now, they replaced it with a maze with Ohio facts. They plan to bring the corn box back another year, once it’s safe to have again.

The farm has also replaced its fall festival events with “Pumpkin Days” this year. It used to host Saturday events like horsepower days, which included a wide range of equipment on the farm that people could climb into and discuss with farmers. But the numbers those events draw made them not doable this year.

“Most of the big events like that in the fall season, we don’t do anymore this year,” Sebolt said. “It was a disappointment. We didn’t feel like it would be safe enough.”

Pumpkin Days have focused more on family activities that are easier to manage and sanitize, Sebolt said.

Arrowhead Orchard added more time on Fridays and started opening on Mondays, so seniors and people who are concerned about large crowds have a chance to visit when there are less people on the farm.

“People were scared quite a bit, so those people that are still scared, we want them to feel comfortable,” Gram said. “They’re so much happier coming out on those days.”

Three haybales stacked in a pyramid in front of a pumpkin patch. The haybales have faces painted onto them, and the top one has a mask painted over the mouth and nose.
Decorated hay bales sit outside the pumpkin patch at Nickajack Farms, in North Lawrence, Ohio, Oct. 14. (Sarah Donaldson photo)

Future

Gram plans to keep offering Monday and extended Friday hours for fall activities in future years.

At Ramseyer Farms, weekday attendance has picked up. But with limited capacity, the weekend numbers are down, though the farm has sold out on tickets for most weekends throughout the season. Ramseyer isn’t sure yet how this will affect the farm’s bottom line.

“It’s hard to know if, in the end, we’ll come out relatively close,” Ramseyer said. “I’m guessing we might be down a little bit.”

The implications of that depend on how the pandemic plays out between now and next year.

“If we’re able to have more people on the farm, then, yes, we’ll definitely bounce back,” Ramseyer said.

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