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Apple growers prepare for busy season amid COVID-19 pandemic

Grace Connatser
Wisconsin State Farmer
Being active outdoors is seen as a safe activity right now, and visiting an apple orchard is a safe way to spend time with family and close friends while not being cooped up inside,

Apple picking is one of Wisconsin's most beloved fall activities, but it may look a little different this season due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Many apple growers with pick-your-own orchards as well as retail stores are having to rethink their business plans because of social distancing and masking policies. Some are also moving some parts of their retail stores outside, limiting the number of people on the orchard property and putting up signage to remind people to wear masks, wash their hands and stay six feet away from people who do not live with you.

Dave Flannery, who owns Apple Holler in Sturtevant, said he has already been implementing these policies through their peach-picking season, which started a few weeks ago, and it's been going well so far. He also said they put up clear plastic barriers at cash registers to separate staff and customers, and he will continue to monitor staff for any COVID-19 symptoms, including taking their temperature at the beginning of each shift.

"We're telling everybody ... that we require social distancing, we require masks, hand washing when they arrive and the use of hand sanitizer when hand washing is not readily available," Flannery said. "There's several hand washing stations throughout the farm. I think we're certainly doing what's recommended."

Flannery said their earliest apple varieties are becoming ripe right now and their season will continue through November, when their Gold Rush variety ripens. He said the growing season has been good this year with only a small amount of sunburn on the apples and the right amount of rain. The numbers of beneficial insects are also the highest they have ever been, he added.

Being active outdoors is seen as a safe activity right now, Flannery said. He said it's a safe way to spend time with family and close friends while not being cooped up inside, and Apple Holler's 66 acres of fruit trees is more than enough to keep people distant.

"I think we have a certain advantage there," Flannery said. "We've got plenty of space to keep socially distant, just enjoying nature and being out there to have a good time."

Apples from wholesaler Atoms to Apples.

Rami Aburomia runs Atoms to Apples, a small wholesale apple farm in Mt. Horeb, and Eplegaarden, a pick-your-own orchard in Fitchburg. Aburomia said farmers markets are not as great as other years now because you have limited interactions with customers. He said community supported agriculture, in which a farmer sells shares of a farm directly to consumers, is working better than farmers markets right now as a direct source of income.

"There's been an uptick of CSAs and people wanting to get stuff direct from the farmer that way," Aburomia said. "Farmers markets have adjusted, but from what I hear they seem to be doing fine. But there's definitely adjustments in how much interaction you have with customers and stuff like that. The CSA seems to be better."

Aburomia also said Eplegaarden is working to space people out throughout the week because they get very busy on weekends and it becomes difficult to maintain social distancing. He hopes that more people will visit the orchard on weekdays, especially with school being out right now and some of them going virtual for the fall. But overall, he's confident that the apple industry will weather the pandemic financially as long as orchards continue to implement safety policies for customers.

2020 total apple production is off 3.4% compared last season’s output, according to a recent August crop production estimate released by the USDA. The fresh and processed apple crop production estimate for 2020 is 253.6 million (42-pound) cartons, down from 262.3 million cartons in 2019.

Forecast apple production this season is expected to be lower in all states except Oregon, the USDA. 

While the season is going well now, Wisconsin experienced a May freeze that took out some blossoms early, Aburomia said. But it's actually a good thing that his fruit trees have experienced drier weather this year, because past years were too wet and cold.

"I am actually pretty optimistic that we're going to be fine because it's something that people can do outside, safe with family, and it's inexpensive," Aburomia said. "I think people are pretty anxious to get their hands on good quality organic apples."

Liz Griffith, whose family runs Door Creek Orchard in Cottage Grove, said their staff has been brainstorming the opening plans for the fall season since spring, and it's been stressful. She said the Wisconsin Apple Growers Association has provided help on how to restructure business plans in the face of the pandemic to ensure health and safety for both staff and customers. 

Door Creek Orchard in Cottage Grove is taking steps to manage their pick-your-own orchard amid COVID-19.

"That's been the priority, keeping customers safe," Griffith said. "All of our planning has been focusing on that – how can we continue to operate and keep our customers and staff safe and comfortable?"

Griffith said their retail store will not be open, and instead they've converted a garage into a retail area where customers can check out with a plastic barrier between them and employees. She also said they're considering doing things by appointment in order to keep people socially distant in the orchard. Griffith said she's anticipating a larger amount of customers than usual because berry growers this summer have experienced huge amounts of people wanting to find time to be outside rather than be at home.

"The message that we're getting is that we should be prepared to be twice as busy as we normally are," Griffith said. "Although that's wonderful, it's also intimidating. Once everything is set up, I'm planning on doing a dress rehearsal for my staff."