It’s strawberry picking time in Maine. Pick-your-own farms around the state are opening, allowing people to head to the fields to gather as much of the sweet juicy crop as they can. But things are going to look and operate differently on those farms this summer thanks to policies aimed at controlling the spread of COVID-19.
“People can expect things to be very different on a lot of these farms than they have seen in the past,” said Jason Lilley, a sustainable agriculture professional with the Cumberland County office of the University of Maine Cooperative Extension. “Those delicious berries will be as delicious as they have ever been, but farmers are doing their best to get up and running with new protocols and new systems so everyone can get to them safely.”
This spring, the cooperative extension worked with growers to develop a list of recommendations and guidance for pick-your-own operations.
There will be variations on how these protocols are set up from farm to farm, but Lilley said pickers should expect some degree of social distancing, limits on numbers of people in the fields at any one time and requirements to move in only one direction down the rows while picking.
Officials are also asking families that normally travel to pick-your-own operations in large groups to instead send the minimum number of people needed to pick the wanted quantity of berries.
“It’s more of a mindset of fewer people picking a lot of berries and then making the jams or pies at home being the entertaining family time thing,” Lilley said.
At Treworgy Orchards in Levant, farmers are working hard to maintain as much of the social part of picking as they can.
“At our farm our main vision is to connect people to farmers and to the land through agriculture,” said Jonathan Kenerson, Treworgy CEO. “This is a challenge this year because COVID keeps us apart.”
Treworgy is just hitting its yearly stride with strawberry picking and Kenerson said he is confident there is enough space in the farm’s six acres of berries to keep people safely distant from each other while they pick.
“We have plenty of rows of berries,” he said. “We are limiting it to one family per row at a time.”
All Treworgy workers are wearing face coverings at all times, but Kenerson said members of the public coming to pick will not be required to wear masks.
“We are working hard so our customers will not see a significant difference this year,” he said. “At the same time we are taking the proper precautions and we believe we have designed a system so anyone can come and feel safe.”
Other farms though are requiring masks — or, at least, requesting them.
At Pineland Farms in New Gloucester, social distancing will be enforced in the fields and pickers are asked to wear face masks. To help keep the numbers of pickers low in those fields, the farm won’t offer large group rides from the parking area to the berries. People should come prepared to walk.
In Sangerville, the berries at Stutzman’s Farms are just starting to ripen and owner Sid Stutzman said he anticipates opening up the pick-your-own fields next week with some COVID-19 restrictions in place including limiting the number of people in rows, social distancing and requesting pickers wear face masks.
Stutzman said he is still studying the state’s recommendations and plans to announce his final guidelines before the fields open.
Lilley said it is important to call ahead or check on a farm’s website before heading out to get the most up to date information on their COVID-19 policies in place,
“A few are even setting up reserved time slots,” Lilley said. “You would not want to show up and get turned away.”
Pickers should not bring their own containers from home, Lilley said, as pick-your-own farms are using single-use containers they will sanitize ahead of time and supply.
“The U-Pick market is a huge part of Maine’s agricultural scene,” Lilley said. “And you can still pick this summer, but it’s just going to be a bit different.”
Kennison is thrilled that the pick-your-own operations can take place this summer, given all the other traditional events that have been cancelled.
“The people we have seen come to pick already were so happy,” he said. “They’ve been cooped up so long and we have plenty of room for them to roam safely.”