U-pick farms reopening with safety features

HARRISBURG, Ore. — Customers flocked to Detering Orchards’ U-pick strawberry patch Saturday for the season’s opening.

Sunday, dozens more people picked until plants were bare and the farm was forced to temporarily close its patch, said Detering Orchards’ retail manager Cindy Dixon.

“I think we may see more people this year than ever. It seems like people are becoming a little more aware of where their food is coming from during this time,” said Ella Jones, office manager for Detering Orchards, near Harrisburg, Ore.

Across Oregon, farmers featuring on-farm picking, known as U-pick, are welcoming or gearing up to welcome visitors. Strawberry patches began opening in late May.

Blueberry patches and cherry orchards are set to open mid-to-late June. Experts predict 2020 will be a successful year for U-pick farms, but because of COVID-19, farms are changing safety practices.

The Oregon Department of Agriculture, or ODA, has issued guidance for U-pick farms. Experts at the Oregon State University Extension Service say the additional practices will look different on each farm.

To limit fruit handling, some farms, such as Kiger Island Blues, a Corvallis blueberry farm, plan to sell by the bucket instead of weighing picked fruit. Many farm owners say they plan disinfect tables, gate handles and other surfaces.

Some farms will discourage cash in favor of debit or credit cards, but that is not feasible for some smaller-scale producers. Most U-pick operations will allow customers to bring their own pre-sanitized containers, but some farms will offer optional buckets for purchase rolled into the overall price.

Andrea Davis, co-owner of Kings Valley Gardens, a small blueberry U-pick farm in Benton County, Ore., said she will offer containers for $1 to $1.50.

Most farms will encourage, but not require, guests to wear masks.

Christina Fordyce of Fordyce Farm in Marion County said the farm will assign customers to pick two rows apart, offer a handwashing station, encourage people to pick what they touch and discourage eating while picking.

Keeping pickers spaced apart may be harder on smaller farms, which may choose to do reservation-only, said Melissa Fery, a small farms coordinator for OSU Extension.

Davis of Kings Valley Gardens, the small-scale grower, said she will do a reservation system only if necessary because many of her customers have traditionally been drop-ins. She plans to use flags and signs to promote social distancing.

Because each operation will vary in hours and policies, Fery said she encourages customers to call in advance.

Some industry experts predict 2020 may be a big year for U-pick farms because more consumers during COVID-19 are seeking food security and local sources.

“I speculate the U-pick model will be really popular this year,” said Fery.

Audrey Comerford, agritourism coordinator at OSU, said she also expects to see more U-pick customers statewide this year.

“People are still uncomfortable about how many people touched or washed their food. This is the shortest possible supply chain,” said Comerford.

U-pick farms, she said, also offer an outdoor activity for people feeling cooped up.

“I’m happy I’ll be able to provide a fun outing,” said Davis, the blueberry grower.

Dixon of Detering Orchards said customers were “so happy” to pick strawberries this weekend.

“This is a crazy time, but when people were picking, they looked really peaceful,” she said.