Until this week, Michigan’s u-pick farms and orchards were worried their pick-it-yourself operations wouldn’t be allowed to reopen to the public. But an executive order Monday from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer gave them the green light.

Now are u-pick operations are working on ways to safely open their strawberry fields, blueberry patches and apple orchards to visitors despite the COVID-19 pandemic.

“There’s no greater place to social-distance than a big, open strawberry field…,” said Audrey Stebolt, horticultural specialist for the Michigan Farm Bureau. “Over the last several weeks they’ve been preparing. They’ve been ready to implement the measures.”

On Wednesday, the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development provided protocols that u-pick operations must follow to protect employees and customers: Farms must have a written COVID-19 preparedness and response plan, screen staff daily for symptoms and prohibit gatherings in which people cannot maintain six feet of distance.

Guidelines call for customers to avoid crowds waiting to enter sales or field areas and maintain six feet between each guest standing in any lines. Farms must sanitize all items that customers touch after every use.

Starting June 1, asparagus fields will open at Blake’s Orchard & Cider Mill in Armada; that will be followed by strawberries, which are still three or four weeks out because of the cool spring. Customers will drive out to fields and be shown a designated area that keeps them away from other pickers. They will be given gloves, which they’ll be required to wear.

“We’ve had just a huge outpouring of people asking about this part of our business and I think it’s because people feel that it’s something they can do with their families very safely,” said Blake’s Orchard & Cider Mill’s Andrew Blake.

While u-pick accounts for less than 10% of Blake’s business, it’s what draws customers to the farm, he said. “It’s really the heartbeat of our organization.”

There are about 239 u-pick farms in the state that generate millions in revenue annually, according to the Michigan Agritourism Association. Janice Benson, executive director of the group, says the ability to interact and “share the food they grow with the public is something that farmers love, but it’s also a big source of their income.

Marilyn Whittaker of Whittaker’s Berry Farm in Ida said her business depends on its strawberry u-pick season.

“We are very relieved that the governor’s orders are going to allow us to be open now,” she said. “We were optimistic about it, but yet didn’t want to want to make any assumptions. This is our livelihood and we have three weeks out of the year to make it.”

Customers will pick from every other row on 15 acres, putting them at least 8 feet apart from others, Whittaker said. She’s ordered handwashing stations for the fields.

At Spicer Orchards in Fenton, Shannon Rowe said she’ll be ready for customers to come pick strawberries next month. She said that the farm has added numerous outdoor checkout systems to limit the need for customers to enter the market.

“We’ve tried to make everything as touchless as possible so that they don’t have to cross-touch anything that other people have touched,” she said. “We’ve made all of our lines for social-distancing and things like that. We’ve removed all self-serve areas.”

She expects she may see even more customers than usual this season.

“We’re hopeful of this being a safe activity,” she said. “Because of it being outside, it’s easy to social-distance.”


Twitter: @CWilliams_DN

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