Green Bluff farmers navigate COVID-19 uncertainty

MEAD, Wash. — Farmers in Green Bluff, a group of nearly 40 small family farms and fruit stands north of Spokane, say they’re getting far less traffic than normal due to the COVID-19 shutdowns.

About 10 farms would typically be open to the public at this time of year, according to the Green Bluff Direct Marketing Association. Five are partially open and the rest are closed.

Jason Morrell, owner of the 68-acre Walters Fruit Ranch, said the closure has contributed to a sense of uneasiness for Green Bluff farmers.

“I was going to buy a mower this year for the orchard — I’m not going to do that now,” he said. “I’ve got the money, but I just don’t know how the year’s going to be.”

Morrell has kept his restaurant and gift shop business closed. The farm also sells commercial take-and-bake pies at local grocery stores, and that business continues, he said.

He employs 20 people year-round, he said.

Morrell’s main business typically picks up June 1, with U-pick strawberries and cherries.

“If we have a good strawberry crop, we’re usually going to have a good year, and we just don’t know what it’s going to look like,” he said.

Morrell said he’s preparing for the worst: the possibility of never opening the whole year.

“It would be quite devastating for us,” he said.

Teri Story, owner of High Country Orchard, raises cherries, peaches, pears, apricots and garden produce on 20 acres.

“We are open six months, we make our money in five to six months,” Story said. “We have to be open, or. …”

She did not finish the sentence.

She has 10 employees, and a few more waiting for seasonal work to begin. At the height of the season, she normally employs nearly 40, she said.

To cope during the shutdown, Story started an online store and hands out orders at a drive-thru window.

Keeping a grocery of sorts in her store has allowed her to keep her doors open, she said. Most customers stay outside, she said. Those who come in have to wear gloves.

Michael Townshend, owner and winemaker of the Townshend Cellar winery, has switched to curbside pickup.

“It’s only curbside,” he said. “We typically would have more people coming in, having a glass or doing a tasting.”

He farms about 30 acres of Christmas trees with his wife, Vanessa. The winery purchases grapes from the Columbia Valley.

The farmers fear the impact of canceled events that usually bring in tourists, a key part of their businesses.

Story’s store has already lost big events like Easter and Mother’s Day and had to cancel some of the weddings she hosts each season.

“It’s those big things we can’t recover that are very difficult for us,” she said.

Craig Dietz, owner of Big Barn Brewing with his wife, Jane, said his 54-acre farm has already had to cancel charity events and an art show.

The farm grows hops, Christmas trees, raspberries, blackberries, pumpkins, peaches and plums.

Dietz estimates his brewery is doing 30% of its normal business. Last weekend he had about 10% of his normal traffic.

The operation has cut its hours by 50%.

“There’s a lot of unknowns for all of us, still,” Dietz said. “Farmers are forever hopeful optimists. … I believe sanity will override current conditions and people will slowly take back their lives.”

Story would like a specific plan from Gov. Jay Inslee for reopening.

“Give me some specifics or what I can do to meet those requirements and I would gladly do them,” she said. “I can socially distance like crazy in our orchard.”