Lots of things have changed with the coronavirus pandemic and COVID-19 — and that includes down on the farm.
“I was ordering things like ground cover. And I’d wait 10 days and call the company and, ‘Oh, we’re back-ordered, and we can’t get that to you until July,’ so my planting got delayed by two weeks or so, just because I couldn’t get all the supplies I needed,” Rachel Cobb said.
Cobb and her husband own Brambling Rows Farm south of Brainerd. They grow produce organically and sell you-pick raspberries, blueberries and grapes in the summer.
The Brainerd High School graduate moved back to the Brainerd lakes area from Colorado, where she managed a small vegetable farm.
Cobb said she has received calls from as far away as Maryland and Michigan from people interested in Brambling Rows Farm, with the majority of calls coming from the Twin Cities and St. Cloud. But she has had to contend with disruptions to her supply chain due to the pandemic.
“That has been a nightmare this year,” Cobb said of the closure of some nonessential businesses intended to slow the spread of the coronavirus. “But the plants are growing no matter what.”
In areas of the country that have prevented agritourism operations from reopening, the impact from COVID-19 will be critical according to Suzi Spahr, executive director of North American Farmers’ Direct Marketing Association, a membership-based nonprofit.
“I’ve got three employees. I’ve gotten the sense that they’re all glad to have jobs that are outdoors and separate from each other. We really don’t have to work in close proximity,” Cobb said.
The Cobbs purchased the farm last year from John and Ruth Jansen almost two decades after the Jansens nurtured their first patch of raspberries at Brambling Rows Berry Farm.
“I added online ordering in order to cut down on person-to-person contact and how much cash we had to handle, so people can preorder and pay with a credit card,” Cobb said of some changes.
The Minnesota Department of Health released extensive guidelines for you-pick operations. Included in those guidelines are things such as having a designated exit and entrance, extra handwashing stations and not allowing people to eat berries while they are picking.
Brambling Rows Berry Farm’s raspberries ripen around the Fourth of July, with blueberries a couple of weeks following that and grapes at the end of August or early September, according to Cobb.
“I would say customer demand has probably been higher, especially at the very beginning of the season in April, when people were anxious to get out of the house and do something,” Cobb said of the stay-at-home order by Minnesota’s governor to reduce the risk of infection.
According to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Census of Agriculture, the U.S. agritourism industry more than tripled between 2002 and 2017, and industry revenue grew from $704 million in 2012 to $950 million in 2017.
“People can come to our farm and have the farm experience picking berries,” Cobb said.
Agritourism is comprised of any agricultural operation that contains a recreational, educational, pick-your-own or other retail components.
Nelson's Berries, another farm in the Brainerd lakes area, will not be offering strawberries this year for reasons unrelated to COVID-19.
“We had a very invasive weed come in on our straw, and it has taken over a good amount of the patch and choked out the strawberry. We apologize for any inconvenience,” Gretchen Nelson said in a recorded announcement for callers.
Nelson and her husband have about 8 acres of strawberries to pick from in their farm’s 2017 picking season, according to the farm’s website.
“This makes us extremely sad as well because we will miss seeing all of your wonderful smiling faces as you come in from the patch but, unfortunately, that is a step we’ve had to take this year,” Nelson stated in her announcement.