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By Blaine Friedlander
  • Cornell Cooperative Extension
  • School of Integrative Plant Science
  • Horticulture Section
  • Fruits
  • Health + Nutrition
Even in the coronavirus era, New York’s pick-your-own farms are flourishing.

“After months of enduring lockdowns, especially in New York, the pick-your-own berry farms around the state are booming this year,” said Marvin Pritts, professor of horticulture in the School of Integrative Plant Science, in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

“Most of the pick-your-own farms are using our Cornell-developed guidelines that are very broad – they’re having an impact.”

The “Best Management Practices for U-Pick Farms During the COVID-19 Pandemic” guidebook offers detail on adjusting farm practices to reduce risk, and provides clarity on getting consumers safely through the farm and keeping farm employees healthy.

“Consumers are cooperating,” said Anu Rangarajan, director of Cornell’s Small Farms Program. “The pick-your-own farm customers are using masks and following rules, washing hands and using hand sanitizer. People are confident about being on these farms.”

Among the guidelines:

  • Create one-way traffic patterns to maintain flow and social distance;
  • provide new containers for customer use;
  • tell customers to keep their pets at home; and
  • furnish hand-washing and hand-sanitizer stations.

And of course, with social distancing guidelines, normal social etiquette is out the window: For proprietors, that means no hugging or shaking hands with regular customers. “Welcome customers with a smile and a wave,” the guide says.

The guidebook was prepared by Rangarajan; Pritts; Elizabeth Bihn, senior extension associate in food science; Laura McDermott, team leader, fruit and vegetable production, Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE); Esther Kibbe, berry production specialist, Western New York CCE; and Julie Suarez, associate dean for land-grant affairs in CALS.

“In the early spring, farmers were worried about the pick-your-own season,” McDermott said. The summer blueberry season is now underway, through August, and apple harvest – including pick-your-own – runs from late August through the fall.

“As I drive around eastern New York, I’m hearing from farmers that 100% of customers are wearing masks as they enter and exit the pick-your-own farms,” she said.

“People have adopted these guides and there is very little pushback. Rules rule, and the customers are OK with it.”

CCE has worked exhaustively to keep farmers, farm employees and the public safe in each New York county.

One key factor for safety was an enormous push by New York’s Department of Agriculture and Markets – under New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s directive – to provide hand sanitizer to farms. Two statewide sanitizer distribution campaigns in the late spring were organized by Paul O’Connor, associate director of field operations for CCE.

Using six regional pick-up points as hubs for all 56 county extension offices, CCE has distributed 28,069 gallons of the state’s golden hand sanitizer, packaged by New York to combat price-gouging, plus 30,386 two-ounce bottles and 106,640 face coverings, according to CCE statistics. For agricultural businesses of all kinds, that distribution affected 46,755 agricultural employees throughout the state.

In Washington County, business at the Hand Melon Farm is strong. Compared to normal years, “we’re doing double the volume of our farm stand and the U-pick season right now,” said Terry Oosterom ’82, who manages the farm along with owner John Hand.

Hand Melon Farm has pick-your-own blueberries now, and will have tomatoes, sweet corn and their famous cantaloupes later this season.

“I hate to credit COVID-19, but it is the only thing that explains the huge interest in local produce now,” Oosterom said. “People want to buy local and they want to know where their food comes from.”

Oosterom said the farm stuck closely to the Cornell guidelines as they educated customers online and through social media, and provided hand-washing and sanitizer stations. They learned that hand sanitizer misting bottles covered hands best.

Getting Cornell guidance and obtaining the state’s sanitizer have been keys to success for some U-pick farms. The proof is in the cash register.

“We are booming,” Oosterom said. “We are almost uncomfortably busy.”

This article also appeared in the Cornell Chronicle.

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