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As Harvest Begins, Wisconsin Apple Orchards Hope Customers Return With New COVID-19 Practices

With Added Costs Of Health Precautions And Managing Crowds, Orchard Owners Worry Canceled Events Could Mean Lost Revenue

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Apples, crop, fall, apple picking
Heather Ainsworth/AP Photo

Many Wisconsin apple orchards are still inviting visitors out for apple picking this fall, but some growers say they worry about the economic impact of canceling annual fall events and adding precautions due to COVID-19.

Nadine Tully, owner of Northwoods Orchard in Mauston, said they haven’t made too many changes this year. They have pick-your-own apples as well as an orchard store.

“A good portion of our activities are outside,” Tully said. “Right now, the numbers aren’t real large. But when we do get crowded, we may at that point have to limit numbers in the store.”

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Tully said they’ve added signs encouraging social distancing and mask-wearing around the orchard, and have added more hand sanitizer stations for customers. She said they’ve also needed to devote more staff time to hand out apple samples to customers instead of letting them get their own.

“There’s always that additional cost to do all this. But we are not going to recoup that,” Tully said.

She said she is most worried about having to cancel the extra events that the orchard typically hosts throughout the season, including food and craft vendors, wagon rides and their annual harvest festival.

“We’ve always had something planned for every weekend for families to come out, and we aren’t able to do those,” Tully said. “So those are potentially lost revenue.”

Laura Tisch, owner of Munchkey Apples, said they’ve added online ordering and curbside pick up to their usual sales methods this year. Tisch is a board member for the Wisconsin Apple Growers Association and she said many orchards are preparing for larger-than-normal crowds.

“From what I have heard, farms are actually even busier because people have a little more time because of all of the sports activities being canceled,” she said. “So they’re kind of looking at more things like that to do.”

She said apple picking is an easier activity to host because it’s outside and customers are able to spread out in the orchard.

In Trempealeau, Sara Ecker from Ecker’s Apple Farm said they had a busier-than-normal opening weekend.

The farm is still hosting live music on the weekends at their beer garden and Ecker said they’re already looking for ways to accommodate more people and still practice social distancing.

“We’re going to set up two bar areas so that people can spread out even more, ” she said. “People kind of tend to stay within beer-walking distance here. So if we set up another tent with another tap in it, families can spread across the whole yard.”

Instead of selling apples and baked goods out of their store, Ecker said they’ve moved all operations to outdoor tents around the farm. They’re also asking customers to wear masks in public spaces or within 6 feet of other customers. She said they haven’t had any pushback on the new rule so far.

“We’ve got our signs up and we’re going to kill them with kindness,” Ecker said. “We’ve all got our masks on and I think that’s the best that we can do.”

Ecker said they’ve already canceled their annual festival held toward the end of the season. While they do have portable heaters and tents ready, she said she does worry the all-outdoor set up could deter customers when the weather turns cold.

“I think the whole thing with this pandemic is when something changes, you have to change with it, so purchasing more of the heaters, putting up more tents,” she said. “Just trying to stay with the changing weather as much as we can and then providing our fruit through other means as well. We are stocking our local grocery stores — any way that we can get fruit to people. And we just have to hope that we have the longest fall possible.”

She said the farm usually sells apples to a local school district, but they haven’t planned any purchases given the uncertainty around whether classes will remain in-person.

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