Pick-your-own farms let guests indulge a pastoral fantasy. Covid-19 has been a harsh dose of reality.

Crowds are down. Masks are on. And many in New England’s agritourism industry are on the verge of giving up.

It’s early September, a time when farms and orchards across the U.S. typically bustle with visitors looking to play farmer for a day. But while pick-your-own apples, blueberries, peaches, and more are a cherished seasonal staple in many regions of the country, 2020 is not a normal year—and the “U-pick” industry looks very different as businesses adapt to a reality remade by Covid-19.

At Tougas Family Farm in Northborough, Massachusetts, for instance, reservations must be made in advance this season. Masks are required. Before customers walk into the orchard, everyone must stop at a handwashing station, speaking to employees behind plexiglass shields. Rather than wandering through rows of bushes or trees to find the perfect fruit, eating and picking as they go, guests must work in even rows, completely picking out an entire section. Payment is through a touchless credit card system rather than cash if possible. 

A Covid-19 handwash station at the Tougas Family Farm in Northborough, MA. September 2020

William Voigt

The handwashing station at the Tougas Family Farm in Northborough, Massachusetts

These operational changes may seem minor on the surface, but that’s not really the point. Pick-your-own is an invitation to participate directly in the agricultural process, bringing home fresh produce for snacking or baking fresh pies and cakes. Every fall, tour buses dump hundreds of city folks looking for a slice of idyllic New England life (and maybe an apple cider donut or two). Can farmers still capture the romance with new public health measures in place?

“Apple season is all about grabbing an apple off the trees and biting into it, and you know, that can’t happen anymore,” said Jen Breen, Tougas Family Farm’s events coordinator. “We’re obviously not going to send full wagons of people into the orchard. That’s not happening anytime soon.”

Now, as the pandemic continues into the fall harvest season, some U-pick farms find themselves in crisis. Orchards accustomed to hosting droves of summer and fall visitors—with a boost from vacationing tourists, school field trips, and corporate outings—must find ways to stay afloat while also instituting a new set of safety and social distancing rules. On a typical fall Saturday, Tougas Family Farm sees more than 6,000 people from all over the state picking through its orchard. But it is no longer possible to accommodate crowds on that scale.

There are thousands of U-pick farms spread across the United States. In Massachusetts alone, more than 280 farms offer pick-your-own options; so-called agritourism generates about $13.5 million in revenue in the state each year, according to Phu Mai, agricultural marketing specialist at the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources.

“Apple season is all about grabbing an apple off the trees and biting into it, and you know, that can’t happen anymore.”

“Agritourism like pick-your-own is a sizable portion of how farms generate revenue,” Mai said. Massachusetts is the eighth-largest state for agritourism in the country, so the challenge has been to keep visitors coming while helping to contain the spread of Covid-19. In response, the state’s family-owned farms have banded together to engineer policies that work alongside Governor Charlie Baker’s reopening plan for the state, including adding handwashing stations and reservation systems and eliminating contact points at registration or purchase. But these added restrictions have been a burden on an industry facing recent struggles—even under normal conditions.  

“There’s not a ton of family-run orchards left,” said Chelsea Martin, a fourth-generation farmer and general manager of Honey Pot Hill Orchards in Stow. “We talk constantly. There’s been a lot of conversation about formal procedures, making sure everyone can pull people through this safely.” It won’t be easy. Most of the pick-your-own farms in the state rely heavily on their agritourism operations. Neither Tougas or Honey Pot sell their produce commercially beyond their farm stores—a common model often supplemented by other agritourism activities like corn mazes, petting zoos, and hayrides. U-pick is a central part of business, and survival means finding ways to draw in-person crowds.

A Covid-19-era sign in front of a field that says

Pick-your-own orchards have instituted a new set of safety and social distancing rules. But these added restrictions have been a burden on an industry that has struggled through recent years.

William Voigt

“We’re 70 percent pick-your-own, 30 percent retail,” said Honey Pot’s Martin. Her operation allows customers to harvest 35 kinds of apples, plus blueberries, and pears. At Tougas, you can pick everything from peaches to pumpkins. 

The average per-farm annual income from agritourism in Massachusetts is $56,150—69 percent higher than the national average of $33,222, according to the USDA’s 2017 Census of Agriculture. It gets even higher in areas like Worcester County, where 65 percent of Massachusetts agritourism takes place, and where the average annual per-farm income from agritourism is a whopping $246,528. Though representatives from Honey Pot and Tougas Family Farm declined to provide specific figures about annual income, they made clear that agritourism is central to their business. 

“We’re a business that really relies on crowds,” said Martin. “There aren’t a lot of other options for us. We don’t have the staff, even if we wanted to, to pick any more than 30 percent of our crop and for a year like this, it’s not possible [to even do that.]”

“It’s a big hit for our business,” said Breen. “If you would pull up last year on a Tuesday morning, there would be 15 school buses parked out front that won’t be there this year. On a Saturday in the fall, we can have upwards of 6,000 people up there. That’s obviously not going to be the case. So we’ll have to figure it out.”

 A lot is riding on this year’s apple season, even for farms like Honey Pot, which has stayed on track for normal revenue for the year so far. “No one is having a good time in 2020,” said Martin. “We’re on track to be a little above [the state average of $56,150] but it depends on how the fall goes. It’s daunting. We’re hoping to appeal to people to help keep us open, spread out throughout the week.”

“We don’t have the staff, even if we wanted to, to pick any more than 30% of our crop and for a year like this, it’s not possible to even do that.”

While these farms are eligible for federal aid from the $2.2 trillion stimulus bill known as the CARES act, the emergency legislation only goes so far. 

Honey Pot received Payroll Protection Program (PPP) aid, which covered only about a quarter of payroll—an amount based on expenses in a normal year. But this hasn’t been a normal year. “We’ve actually had to hire more this year for sanitization and to keep people where they’re supposed to be,” said Martin. “We needed it … just to keep things going. It’s been a really weird year.”

As challenging as 2020 has been, there’s some hope for the future. “I think farms can be cautiously optimistic,” said Mai. “People want to get some sort of normalcy in their lives, [and here in Massachusetts] that’s apple picking. On our web pages and social media, there’s been a huge spike in traffic and interest.”

“It’s often the first experience that visitors have on a farm, and more people are getting out there,” said Dr. Lisa Chase, Director of the Vermont Tourism Center. “Demand for local food is high, especially since Covid-19,” she said. “What’s more trustworthy than getting your food from a farm down the road? You know who produced it, you know who picked it.”

The check-in line outside Tougas Family Farm in Northborough, MA. September 2020

For farms like Tougas Family Farm, u-pick makes up a sizable portion of revenue.

William Voigt

Both farms had to get creative with ways to make up for lost revenue due to diminished crowds. 

“We had 36,000 trees in bloom all at once over Mother’s Day weekend,” said Breen. “So we opened up the orchard roads, did a drive-through store so people could get their donuts, and we made an I-Spy game for the kids. We parked tractors and equipment hidden in the orchard.”

Tougas Family Farm has also made the switch to e-commerce with a curbside pickup option, making fresh apple cider donuts dangerously easy to come by. “It’s been a huge hit,” laughed Breen. “We’re absolutely keeping the online store. [Our bakers] are busier than they’ve ever been.”

That’s not the only long-term change for these farms. “The nice thing for us with assigning spots for blueberries is that the bushes get picked more thoroughly,” said Breen. “It’s a nicer experience for visitors, but it’s also a much cleaner pick, so we’ll probably do that next year.”

One thing’s for certain: Creativity only goes so far if people don’t come to pick.

“What’s more trustworthy than getting your food from a farm down the road? You know who produced it, you know who picked it.”

“We’re super lucky because we have been successful in the past,” said Martin. “So we can ride this out for a year if we have to. But you know, if next year is the same way, things are going to start getting tough.”

Pick-your-own orchards have no way to know what happens next, but their owners are hoping people will give them a chance. It’s been a challenging year for everyone. “We’ll be constantly updating and tweaking our procedures,” said Martin. “If there’s any feeling of normalcy that we can provide for people, we’re going to try.”

Kayla Voigt Always in search of adventure, Kayla hails from Hopkinton, Massachusetts, the start of the Boston Marathon. You can find her at the summit of a mountain or digging into a big bowl of pasta when she's not writing. Say hi on Instagram @klvoigt.