Pick Your Poison – Nick Mancall-Bitel

Fall activities like apple picking and leaf peeping are generally considered safe, but with record crowds and a COVID surge expected to collide this fall, locals are worried

In the initial months of the COVID-19 pandemic, the outpouring of New York City residents to surrounding rural areas offered a boon to Twin Star Orchards. The U-pick apple farm and maker of Brooklyn Cider House cider sits just outside the small village of New Paltz, New York, about 80 miles north of New York City and halfway to Albany.

Susan Yi, who founded the business along with her brother Peter, says a wave of transplants buying new homes in the Hudson Valley gave business a bump during the usual off-season of April and May. Newly remote workers with flexible schedules have driven more business on Fridays, too, and the farm has added live music, usually reserved for holidays, to bring people out on Saturdays. There was even a socially distanced Fourth of July pig roast on its sprawling outdoor pavilion.

But as fall approaches at Twin Star Orchards, Yi worries that the farm’s high season could bring as much trouble as much-needed income. “Fall is always very busy with late September [to] early October as the peak, with apple-picking and leaf-peeping drawing a lot of people to the area,” she says. “We are typically packed each weekend, so we are a little concerned about keeping the crowds spaced out during that time.”

As spring turned to summer, the Northeast began to get a grip on the COVID-19 pandemic. New York state made a miraculous about-face from the nation’s hotbed to a model for how to contain the pandemic with aggressive lockdowns and testing. It made nearby places like New Paltz safer too. However, the popularity of fall activities could undermine those trends by coaxing people out of their homes just as experts predict a second wave of cases.

With what we know about the spread of COVID-19, outdoor escapes like apple picking seem relatively safe, making these fall getaways especially attractive for cooped-up city dwellers and parents desperate to distract their kids. The brilliant reds and oranges of fall foliage — shining in the face of everything this year — can still be admired from the isolated safety of a family car. The smell of “world-famous” apple pies will still be wafting across New England, and the treats are just as easily devoured at six-foot-spaced outdoor tables. Country farms are the stuff of quarantine cottagecore dreams, where animals offer themselves for therapeutic cuddles and no one needs to shuffle off the sidewalk to maintain social distancing.

a tower of jack o’ lanterns at night. James Kirkikis / Shutterstock
The annual pumpkin festival in Keene, New Hampshire, with its signature tower, attracts thousands of visitors each year

But as tempting as this autumnal fantasy and its perceived safety may seem, the crowds it’s expected to draw to rural areas are inspiring mixed feelings among local business owners. After six months of financial hardship, including a delayed start to summer travel, some hope a fall boom will compensate for lost business. Others, fearing the potential for super-spreaders to hide among the pie stands and farm rows, worry that travelers could bring a second wave of infections to their doorsteps.

In May 2019, Greenleaf opened in Milford, New Hampshire, a small town famous for its pumpkin festival and leaf-peeping. The restaurant was only a few months old for its first festival in October last year. “Seeing all the people from the surrounding communities and traveling from afar to take part in this festival in such a small town was great to see,” says chef-owner Chris Viaud. “We were like, ‘Next year, we’re going to do this big. We’ll make sure we’re ingrained in the community and take a bigger part in this.’” Now the restaurant is in limbo as the town decides whether or not to cancel this year’s pumpkin festival.

Like nearly all other restaurants across America, Greenleaf is struggling with reduced traffic due to COVID-19. While it has received financial assistance from government programs, that can only take the restaurant so far, Viaud says, and he’s relying on business to pick up in the fall. Even if the pumpkin festival does get canceled, he still expects people will want to travel, and that puts him in a tricky position. “It’s a tough conversation. We have to think of ourselves and the wellness of our staff, but then the flip side of that is the wellness of the business,” he says.

Even in areas of the Northeast traditionally known more for summer and winter activities, fall has become an unexpected fulcrum of seasonal tourism. In Stowe, Vermont, for instance, summer hiking and winter skiing drive most tourist traffic, but summer travel was dampened by the coronavirus’s first wave, and Vermont’s popular ski mountains may shut down this winter. Local businesses need customers to show up in the next few months.

That might be tricky for Plate, a popular Main Street restaurant in Stowe that’s balancing its responsibility to locals against its dependence on tourists. “Early when we very first opened [for outdoor dining in May], we saw a lot of locals coming back to support us,” says chef-owner Aaron Martin. “Once people started traveling more, we noticed that it was mostly tourists, and our locals were feeling safer to stay away.” Martin says locals have returned tentatively, but they prefer the restaurant’s small, 10-seat patio to the indoor dining room — even at the 40 percent capacity it’s implemented to maintain social distancing. Some customers refuse to dine altogether if they can’t be seated outside. The chef chalks up their hesitance in part to the fact that out-of-state visitors tend not to follow Vermont’s 14-day mandatory quarantine for travelers. As temperatures drop, the restaurant will eventually have to pack up the outdoor seating, sacrificing the valuable added revenue along with it.

Viaud and Martin agree the potential for a second wave makes it difficult to make plans for the next few months. “Everyone’s listening to the media. In the fall, there is a scare of another spike. What does that mean for the businesses around?” Viaud wonders. Martin has no doubt about what would happen in Vermont. “We have a great governor who’s done a wonderful job. If we have a second wave, he’ll shut us all down again,” he says.

Rows of sugar-sprinkled cider donuts.Boston Globe via Getty Images
Fresh cider donuts at Cider Hill Farm in Amesbury, Massachusetts

While some people might be stressing about the approaching autumn, apple trees and pumpkin vines are forging ahead at full speed. “The farm doesn’t know a pandemic from a regular year. The fruit’s going to grow either way,” says farm operations manager Jay Mofenson of Lookout Farm in South Natick, Massachusetts. “We have certain fixed expenses of equipment needs and labor needs that, regardless of the pandemic, have to continue.”

Lookout was founded in 1651, making it one of the nation’s oldest continually operating farms. Today the 180-acre orchard is home to 55,000 trees, drawing around 50,000 eager amateur apple pickers each year. While the farm does sell some apples to wholesale distributors, Mofenson says, “Agritourism is really our primary focus.”

Luckily for the farm, summer peach season is typically much slower than the fall, only attracting an average of 5,000 visitors in a normal year. Not only does this mean Lookout didn’t sacrifice much U-pick business during the initial wave of the pandemic, but it also gave Mofenson and his team a chance to reconfigure the entire operation ahead of the anticipated fall crowds. They re-envisioned the customer experience from the moment a guest gets out of their car to the moment they return to the parking lot. They nixed the trains that usually ferry people to the fruit trees, established a one-way path through the rows, and set up a reservation system with caps on the number of pickers per hour.

Across the country, in Camarillo, California, home of the Abundant Table, the leaves aren’t much of a draw, but the farm still offers a classic fall experience. Programming extends well beyond U-pick to include a produce shop, educational programs for kids and adults, open community farming initiatives, and other BIPOC-focused nonprofit efforts.

All of these programs were paused in the initial days of the pandemic, but Linda Quiquivix, institutional sales partnerships and CSA manager, says the team is planning their return in the coming months, with strict social-distancing measures in place. “The really cool thing about us is we’re a collective. We’re a democratic workplace,” she says. “We get to decide what conditions we work under. We always keep abreast of the [COVID-19] situation, so we don’t have any problems codifying plans according to new realities.”

Quiquivix explains that after the highly publicized breakdown of the food system early in the pandemic, community farming, U-pick, and the produce stand give people a chance to support local farming, which many customers are recognizing as increasingly important. The Abundant Table is also collaborating with the Rodale Institute, a nonprofit focused on organic farming, to set up a U-pick, no-till pumpkin patch. As kids shift to remote learning in the fall, Quiquivix is hoping the school district will allow a class of sixth graders to come help analyze the pumpkin patch once a week, not only to discuss maintaining soil carbon by avoiding tilling, but also the pre-colonial farming practices of the Chumash people on that land.

tables under umbrellas are outside a barn structure, several feet apart. Lookout Farm
Lookout Farm in Massachusetts has transformed its outdoor dining area for social distancing.

Farther north, at R. Kelley Farms in Sacramento, owner Ron Kelley committed to his summer crops back in April, planting his seeds when rumors still indicated the pandemic would clear up soon. U-pick typically accounts for 60 percent of business for the 28-year-old farm, and the summer high season has been going well. Kelley has implemented social distancing and a reservation system, allowing him to host visitors from as far as 100 miles away to pick crowder, purple hull, and black-eye beans.

But that’s all changing in the fall, which doesn’t drive nearly as much business for him. The potential costs outweigh any potential gains for offering his usual winter greens for U-pick. “My business is the least of my concerns. I’m worried about my health,” he says. “I’m 72 years old and do not want to take any chances of getting ill from working outdoors in the fall and winter.”

While most restaurants and farms plan to do everything they can to stay in business, Kelley is more open about the potential of closing up shop. “I’m at the age that this may be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.” he says. “Once I finish this year, then I’ll take a hard look at it, decide whether I want to gamble again next year or what exactly I want to do.”

“It’s going to be a challenging year. I can’t say where we’re going to end up, financially speaking,” Mofenson says bluntly. But there’s always an upside to working through the crisis. “The farm is a very special place to us, to a lot of people. The benefit is tons of comments all the time from people about how grateful they are to have an opportunity to be outdoors, to see the kids smiling. It’s really been a silver lining to this whole situation.” He adds, “Hopefully everyone has a better 2021.”

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