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Sunday, May 16, 2021

Farm outings could change amid COVID-19 pandemic

By Zeta Cross | The Center Square

(The Center Square) – The COVID-19 pandemic has nudged a lot of people out to farms to buy produce and meat directly from farmers.

Michelle Sirles of Rendleman Orchards in Union County said she noticed more traffic from visitors this spring. It is a trend that farms have been trying to encourage.

Rendleman’s, like many Illinois farms, has turned to “agri-entertainment” to supplement its crop business. A few years ago, Rendleman’s put in a pumpkin patch. Then they added a pick-your-own sunflower field. A pick-your-own zinnia field followed a couple of years ago. Kids can pet goats and visit the chicken coup. Fresh cider doughnuts are sold along with the peaches, nectarines and pumpkins.

A trip to the produce stand has become a day outing, complete with plenty of places to take selfies and Instagram shots.

“If you are going to expand your retail operations, you realize right away that people are looking for an experience when they come to the farm,” Sirles said.

Next to the produce stand, Rendleman’s has a shop where they sell jams and hot sauce and candles. The retail operation has gone from 15% of Rendleman’s business to 25%, Sirles said. That is “a nice cushion” when bad weather hurts their crop yield or when wholesale prices fluctuate, she said.

Rendleman’s offers a walking experience. It does not have a corn maze or hayrides, Sirles said.

On the bigger end of Illinois’ agri-tourism business is Eckert’s Inc., which has several operations in southwestern Illinois, including its main farm in Belleview.

In the fall, Eckert’s main farm attracts a quarter of a million visitors in the two month period before Halloween, Illinois Farmer Today reported. COVID-19 restrictions will probably eliminate hayrides and corn mazes and likely cause operators to shut down children’s play areas.

“We’re waiting to see what phase we’ll be in at the time and what the rules will be coming at the end of August when we get going,” Chris Eckert, president of Eckert’s, told Illinois Farmer Today.

Instead of letting people pick their own apples, Eckert’s may put all its apples in the wholesale market this year, Eckert said.

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