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Local farmstands cope with COVID-19

Harvard’s farmstands and farm stores, like those in the rest of the state, are considered essential businesses and have kept to their normal seasonal schedules. But that doesn’t mean their summer operations won’t be affected by COVID-19.

For Carlson Orchards and Westward Orchards, the two farm stores in town, online shopping and curbside pickup this season will be a new way of life. For all of the orchards, new state guidelines for pick-your-own activities from the Department of Agricultural Resources will be in effect, causing some to question whether they can support that popular and profitable aspect of the business this year. The Press gathered information from the five largest farms and orchards regarding how their operations will change this season.

The Carlson Orchards farm store is open year-round, and after the pandemic hit, pretty much everything in the store was put online. In addition, the store began carrying a variety of local products including lettuce from Little Leaf Farms in Devens, milk and ice cream from Shaw Farm in Dracut, eggs from Brookside Family Farm in Westminster, and fresh pasta and sauce from Valicenti Pasta Farm in Hollis, New Hampshire. Store manager Katie Carlson-Hardy said that business from the online shop has been “fantastic,” and more local products may be added if there is a demand for them.

Customers can still go into the store, but they will be asked to wear face coverings. Carlson-Hardy is manning the store pretty much by herself these days and told the Press she wants to minimize staff in the store to limit exposures to both them and customers. As for pick-your-own, she said the orchard typically opens near the end of June for cherry-picking, followed by blueberry-picking, but added “we have no idea yet” how that might work. Information will be posted on the Carlson Orchards website and Facebook page as pick-your-own season nears.

Doe Orchards co-owner Pam Lawson told the Press she is looking forward to opening for pick-your-own blueberries and raspberries as soon as they are ready, probably around the first week in July. She said they will be following Department of Agricultural Resources guidelines to keep workers and customers safe, which will include limiting the number of people allowed in the orchard. Before Doe opens, information about what to expect will be on its website, Facebook, and Instagram. Lawson said, “It will work differently than last year, but the main goal is to have as close to the same experience as we’ve always had.”

Old Frog Pond Farm consists of both a vegetable farm and orchards, and owner Linda Hoffman reported they’ve planted more vegetable crops than ever before. The farmstand is open, offering organic mesclun, arugula, baby kale, jam, and nettle tea. Payment at the self-serve stand is by cash or by phone with Venmo. Hoffman said they are still discussing various options for pick-your-own fruit crops this year; more information will be posted on the farm’s website.

Willard Farm is operating as usual so far, with the addition of signs directing customers to wear a mask to enter the stand area, and the option of paying by phone using Venmo to avoid handling cash.

Chris Green of Westward Orchards and Valentine Williams, a seasonal worker from Jamaica, water recently planted sweet potato plants in a field on Oak Hill Road, May 24. (Photo by Lisa Aciukewicz)

Westward Orchards had the most complex scenario to work out, with a vegetable farm, orchards, a CSA program, and a store that includes a lunch counter and a large gift shop. In addition, this year the town’s Board of Health strongly recommended that the store’s water supply be converted from private to public, and store owners agreed to make the move, which would have the added benefit of allowing them to expand activities at the orchard. Store manager Stephanie O’Keefe told the Press that the process was held up at the state level because of the pandemic, but is finally complete.

Westward Orchards’ CSA program is already sold out, with 200 customers, nearly 50% higher than last year’s number, so that part of the business is booming. The store, which typically opens June 1, will open June 8 for online and phone orders only. Pickup will be on the covered porch or brought out to customers’ cars if requested. Products have been added to the usual offerings, including milk, bread, flour, sugar, and frozen pastas and sauces. Lilac Hedge Farm meats and eggs will be available, as will all of Westward’s produce and a variety of produce from local markets. The lunch counter will not open June 8, but O’Keefe said chicken salad and pasta salad will be available. A link to the online store will be posted on the Westward Orchards website by opening day.

The public will not be allowed in the store right away, O’Keefe said, because sanitizing the number of products there, including those in the gift shop that are frequently touched, would make it difficult. In addition, she worries about her over-60 parents, who typically both work in the store, as well as exposing other staff members.

As the season progresses, O’Keefe said Westward will consider holding an open-air market on the porch on certain days, and she thinks pick-your-own will be able to open. The orchard has a lot of acres, so that helps with the requirements of the state’s Department of Agricultural Resources, but she worries about who will monitor or police those requirements. She has purchased some handwashing stations, though, in preparation. As with everything else right now, “it’s a fluid situation,” she said.

Harvard’s farmstands

Carlson Orchards 
115 Oak Hill Road. Store is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily; online ordering and pickup available 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily. See Carlson Orchards Facebook page for more information and the online shopping link.

Doe Orchards
327 Ayer Road. Will open in early July for blueberries and raspberries, including pick-your-own.

Old Frog Pond Farm
38 Eldridge Road. Self-serve farmstand open for organic mesclun, arugula, and baby kale as well as jam and nettle tea. More products being added weekly; see the website for details.

Westward Orchards
178 Massachusetts Avenue. Opening June 8 for online and phone orders only. Hours in the beginning will be 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. and 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. every day except Wednesday and Sunday. Hours may be expanded as the season progresses. Check the website for the online shopping link when the store opens.

Willard Farm
218 Still River Road. Self-serve farmstand open daily for vegetable plants.

 

Phase 1 pick-your-own guidelines

The Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources issued a list of guidelines to limit the spread of COVID-19 for farms who support pick-your-own (PYO) activities; they are summarized here.

  • Staff and customers must use cloth face coverings while harvesting crops.
  • Social distancing must be followed during check-in, picking, and payment.
  • For larger PYO areas (such as apples), the number of customers allowed to enter is 30% of normal capacity.
  • For smaller PYO areas (such as blueberries), the number can be higher, 8-10 customers per 1,000 square feet, since staff can oversee activities better in these areas.
  • The number of customers picking in a row of trees or bushes should be minimized.
  • Children should stay near their families.
  • Farms are encouraged to identify traffic flow patterns and harvest rules. These include minimizing the handling of produce.
  • Reusable bags or boxes are not allowed, whether brought in by customers or supplied by farms. Farms should supply new bags or boxes and they must be stored away from customer flow areas and covered with plastic.
  • Handwashing stations must be made available to customers and staff; the number of stations should be relative to the anticipated number of customers. Hand sanitizer stations should not be used as a replacement.
  • PYO farms must sanitize check-in tables and other surfaces at increased intervals, and display items that cannot be sanitized should not be used.
  • Farm staff must wear disposable gloves at all times during pick-your-own operations.
  • Cash transactions should be minimized; credit card readers should be sanitized between transactions. Phone payment applications such as Venmo or Paypal are better options.
  • Disinfecting produce is not necessary as there is “no indication that COVID-19 is transmitted via produce,” according to the guidelines document.

The guideline document is available at www.mass.gov/doc/mdar-bulletin-16-farm-pick-your-own-pyoagricultural-tourism-activities/download.

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