U-pick farms — the choose-your-own-fruit-and-vegetable patches that draw droves each summer and fall — have been especially busy this year. Some farms have been so picked over that they’ve had to close their fields for a day or longer to let new fruit ripen.
With apple-and-pumpkin season in full swing, that popularity is continuing, and u-picks have adapted accordingly. Weekend festivals are out. Mask wearing is in. Most locations have introduced ticketed and timed entry, and created prepaid packages for produce and other amenities, like hay rides, to limit face-to-face interaction.
“We’ve had to switch things up a little bit,” said Kyle Holman, the brand manager for Alstede Farms in Chester, N.J. Compared with years past, he said, “things are as good if not better.” Summer picking was up as was interest in the farm’s C.S.A., though the usually busy autumn season has been scaled back. “We can’t have those bigger days,” Mr. Holman said.
For the most part, visitors appear to be adhering to the farms’ precautions, though there are occasional bad apples. In July, for instance, County Line Orchard, a u-pick farm in Hobart, Ind., with an event space was the site of a 270-person unofficial prom that became a Covid-19 superspreader event. (County Line Orchard did not respond to a request for comment.)
Valerie Garcia, a 42-year-old consultant, thought that going to Robinette’s, a u-pick in Grand Rapids, Mich., that also sells cider and doughnuts, would be relatively safe. As a caregiver for her 93-year-old grandmother, she has to be vigilant. When she arrived at the farm, she was dismayed.
“I pulled in and was shocked to see hundreds of people standing in groups,” Ms. Garcia said. There were jungle gyms and even a “jumping pillow,” similar to a trampoline, full of children. (Robinette’s is allowing only 12 children on the jumping pillow at a time because of the pandemic; in a normal year the capacity is closer to 30, said Karey Robinette, the farm’s manager.)
“It was the first time in eight months I’d been anywhere that really felt like they weren’t taking care,” Ms. Garcia said.
Ms. Robinette said the farm has limited the number of visitors it admits, closed off indoor bathrooms and seating areas, and asked visitors to wear masks. Michigan currently requires masks to be worn indoors or in “crowded outdoor spaces.”
“Personally I’m not the mask police, and I can’t go around outside asking everybody to wear a mask,” Ms. Robinette said. “I kind of feel like people are also adults. We’ve done this for how long now, and they should be a good judge of if they should have it on or not when they’re outside.”
In a typical year, u-pickers may choose a farm based on its amenities or the quality of its fruit, but this year, for many, safety has come first.
“We decided on Belkin Family Lookout Farm because they outlined how they were handling crowds,” said Damien Smith, 41, a marketing director in Boston. He goes apple picking every year with his family, though usually at another farm.
The safety measures Belkin put in place, like timed entries and one-way rows for pickers, made the experience feel a bit sterile, but Mr. Smith didn’t mind. The air smelled like apples, his 4-year-old had a great time, and it was a break from suburban life. Mr. Smith was nervous about the excursion, he said, “but when I got there, I was completely at ease.”
Cynthia Vanis, 36, a hairstylist in Brooklyn, said, “We went to three last week. We’re doing it more than we would because we’re trying to find outdoor things to do.”
Ms. Vanis, her husband and their 3-year-old daughter have picked apples as well as corn, pumpkins, beans and potatoes. Her daughter is being home-schooled, and these outings to u-picks have also been opportunities for Ms. Vanis to teach her how things grow. “She had no idea potatoes had to be dug up.”
The visits have restored a sense of normalcy for people who have been somewhat isolated from their communities for months. “I live in a small town,” said Ilana Polyak, 49, a freelance writer in Northampton, Mass. “You run into people you know all the time, especially if you have kids.”
That hasn’t been the case this year, but when she took her family blueberry and strawberry picking over the summer, she ran into friendly faces and fell into the kind of casual small talk that has been rare for many during the pandemic. “There was this real joy from the people who were there,” Ms. Polyak said.
With indoor activities and plane travel curtailed, outdoor day trips have helped people preserve a sense of adventure. “My husband and I have done this every year as a couple,” said Heidy Best, 39, who owns a wardrobe styling company in Chicago.
This year, to try something new, they drove to Thompson Strawberry Farm in Bristol, Wis., which has been popular on social media thanks to the 22 acres of sunflowers the owners planted (in addition to berries and other produce).
“You know how sometimes people use great angles and filters and then you get there and you’re like, ‘What corner of this place were you at?’” Ms. Best said. “I couldn’t find a place to take a bad picture. It looked like miles and miles of sunflowers.”
Out of necessity, the pandemic has been making people receptive to new experiences. “I’ve never done a u-pick in my life,” said Jackie Freeman, 40, a chef and cookbook author who lives just outside Seattle on a one-acre property with a kitchen garden. She has been trying to find ways to entertain her two stepsons, 8 and 12, and her 2-year-old daughter without putting them at risk.
“I’m used to going out and harvesting things, but I never thought about going somewhere and having it be an experience,” Ms. Freeman said. So this year, she tried something new and took them blueberry picking at Pearson’s Bees and Berries. “I had a great time, and the kids had a great time,” she said. Next year she plans to go picking again — this time, for strawberries.