George Richardson is hopeful his family’s Spring Grove farm property that has hosted an expansive, unique and intricately designed corn maze each year for two decades could be an even bigger hit this fall.
With COVID-19 continuing to inhibit or postpone many recreational activities for youth, families and adults alike, he said he thinks agricultural tourism businesses like Richardson Farm could be more appealing this year.
The outdoor setting is less of a public health risk than, for example, strolling through an indoor cultural facility where the virus can spread more easily.
“We have no idea what attendance will be, but every indication from other agritourism farms is that it will be good,” Richardson said. “You have drive-in movies, and where else do you go? Restaurants are all at reduced capacity.”
Plus, farms in northern Illinois that, like Richardson’s, lure visitors with attractions such as mazes, zip lines and specialty seasonal goods, such as pumpkins and apple cider, have made adjustments to make the experience even safer from the outbreak.
Richardson Farm opens Saturday. Richardson said he plans on running a few more tractors for wagon rides than in the past so groups are not near others on the vehicles. He also plans to set up more jumping pillows for children to keep them less crowded than normal.
The farm’s labor costs could be 20% to 30% higher than normal as a result of some of the changes, but Richardson said he hopes it will be worthwhile.
“We’ve had less attendance for the last two years, so we could use a really good year,” he said while standing on a farm tower providing an overview of the maze. This year, the paths through the corn field, which total 9 miles, were designed as a tribute to the 50th anniversary of the first Earth Day celebration that was recognized in the spring.
Some agritourism businesses in the region already are seeing big crowds in the first few weeks since opening in late August.
“I think there is definitely that pent-up desire to want to go out and do things,” said Sarah Bell, owner and operator of Royal Oak Farm Orchard on Hebron Road in Harvard.
In fact, the 120-acre property, which features an apple tree maze, saw record crowds over Labor Day weekend, she said.
“Our weekdays have been affected a little bit because of the virtual schooling and parents having to stay home with their students or toddlers. But our weekends, as long as the weather cooperates, have been much busier than normal,” Bell said. “In these next two to three weekends, we’ll be able to see if it’s more of a trend.”
Having a good start to the year was not necessarily expected. Royal Oak Farm staff in the spring, when Chicago was an epicenter of the pandemic, was very uncertain about the level of interest consumers would have in the harvesting season and fall traditions on the farm.
Royal Oak decided not to run hay rides this year while COVID-19 remains a threat and is asking all guests to wear face coverings on weekends, when the farm is most crowded.
“We knew we would be able to open to some extent, we just didn’t know what that would look like early on,” Bell said. “Thankfully, we had set up an online ordering and pickup system for apple buyers we had been using for the last two years. Customers could order ahead and pick up at the farmers markets we attend. That has made offering services that we’re doing now like home delivery and curbside pickup an easy transition for us.”
Royal Oak and Richardson Farm both used some test runs this summer to gauge how people might feel about coming to their properties.
Richardson in July held a fireworks display that drew 3,000, he said, after the villages in the area canceled their Independence Day shows. He said attendees were good about about following social distancing guidelines and sitting in front of their cars without mingling with others.
Royal Oak offered a drive-thru of the orchard while it was in bloom for customers coming to get apples that was popular and served as marketing for its fall events, and also created a video so people could take a virtual tour of the orchard online, Bell said.
“To us, it was important to make sure that we got started as early as we possibly could to get income coming in earlier than normal to make sure that we could offset what we were unsure about with the fall and still are unsure of,” Bell said.
For Jenna Spychal, the third-generation owner of Jonamac Orchard in Malta west of DeKalb, seeing families continue with annual trips to pick pumpkins and have a taste of hard cider on the patio at night has been comforting.
Jonamac is limiting capacity to 25% of its normal maximum on the farm to ensure social distancing is maintained, and this year is newly recommending visitors make reservations online to get their tickets, with only a select few tickets available at the gate.
“I think that this whole thing of being quarantined away from people has really made us realize that we were taking things for granted. I have seen a lot of people be so appreciative that we are still opening in a big, open-air place so they can come out with their family and do one of their traditions,” Spychal said. “They’re just so excited to be able to come out and do something that feels normal. We’re thrilled as well.”