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A ‘berry’ different season: Business is good, but Johnston strawberry patches are different this year

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North Carolina’s response to COVID-19 has changed his farm in many ways, says Mitch Smith, an owner of Smith’s Nursery near McGee’s Crossroads.

“In a normal year, we host field trips from local school groups throughout the week,” said Smith, whose operation grows strawberries, blueberries, produce and landscape shrubs. “With schools closed, we are unable to host field trips, which has been a big adjustment for us.”

The pandemic has also changed how the farm does business, Smith said. “We would also normally offer pick-your-own strawberries to the public,” he said. “This year, we made the decision to close our field to the public and only allow our employees, who are wearing masks and gloves, to pick and package strawberries for us to sell pre-picked.”

For many Johnston families, picking berries is a rite of spring, and Smith was reluctant to suspend a tradition. “This was a difficult decision for us to make,” he said. “And it has presented us with more challenges (in) managing the fields and keeping the strawberry crop picked closely.”

But the farm chose to err on the side of caution, Smith said. “We decided not to allow pick-your-own in an effort to reduce large crowds and long lines at our farm,” he said. “We have also stopped selling ice cream by the scoop for the same reasons.”

Smith’s Nursery has even canceled annual events, including its Mother’s Day celebration, to limit numbers on the farm, Smith said.

But the pandemic has prompted the farm to try new things, and that’s good, Smith said. “In response to COVID-19 and customer demands, we are taking online orders through our website,” he said. “This has been a very new experience for us and has required extra labor for us to accommodate.”

Still, “the response to the online ordering — we are calling it Porchside Pickup — has been very positive,” Smith said.

The number of people visiting the farm amid the pandemic has been good, Smith said. “It seems that a lot of families are eager to get out of the house and enjoy the outdoors, and our farm provides a great opportunity for that,” he said. “With that said, most people seem very conscious of social distancing and keeping their space from each other.”

The farm is doing its part too, Smith said. “We have added several signs to remind our customers to practice social distancing,” he said. “We have added two hand-washing stations in addition to our restrooms and have made hand sanitizer easily available to both customers and employees.”

Beyond that, “we have made efforts to weigh and bag produce for our customers so they do not have to handle it themselves or worry about others handling the produce that is on display,” Smith said.

Outside of those canceled field trips, the farm has seen increased customer traffic on weekdays, Smith said. “But we have also noticed people are less likely to hang out and linger once they finish shopping. That has helped cut down on overcrowding. Overall, customers have been responsive to the changes we have implemented and have been very patient with us as we have adjusted to this new normal.”

But no Johnston farm that’s open to the public knows what the future holds, Smith said. “We do not know what to expect going forward this year,” he said. “We are allowing pick-your-own blueberries this year. We decided to keep that open because blueberry picking is a lot more isolated and does not tend to attract the large crowds that strawberry picking does.”

Smith is more worried about the fall. “We rely on field trips and agritourism for our fall season of pumpkins and hayrides,” he said. “And we do not know what to expect for that right now.”

Smith assured Johnstonians that his farm was committed to their safety. “We will continue to follow guidelines from the CDC and health officials as it pertains to interacting with customers and educating our employees,” he said. “We have become much more conscious of health and sanitation this year, which is something we hope will carry over in the future even after COVID-19.

“We are hopeful to get back to normal soon, but we understand that the health and safety of the community is the primary concern.”

In the Archer Lodge community, another strawberry operation, Pace Family Farms, has installed hand-washing stations, marked 6-foot spots at checkout and encouraged visitors to bring their own containers. And while the farm allows customers to pick their own berries, they do so in every other row to maintain social distancing.

Customers have been receptive to and pleased with the measures, said Michelle Pace Davis, an owner. “We are really seeing the community coming together at the farm,” she said.

Her farm is seeing more visitors this year, and the reasons are many, Davis said. “The first being COVID-19,” she said. “People are at home with no sporting events, no school, no movie theater, no beach, but we are open. People are enjoying coming to the farm, being outside and being able to enjoy each other while social distancing.”

Her farm also stages special events to attract visitors, Davis said. “Last year we had a great response to our Sunflower Day, and this past December with our inaugural Christmas Craft Fair,” she said.

When Davis took over the farm, she dropped tobacco in favor of produce, which she sells directly to consumers. She thinks business is up in part because word of the produce and berry farm has spread.

“It typically takes three to four years for a farm’s name and location to gain recognition ... and we are in year four,” Davis said.

Another factor in increased business: giving customers that they want.

“We greatly value and appreciate feedback from our customers and are always asking them what they are interested in and what they would like to see,” Davis said.

Last year, their answer was food trucks. “Families mentioned that while they are here to pick strawberries, it would be convenient to have a food truck and tailgate or have a picnic at the farm together,” Davis said. “This past January, we started making reservations for various food trucks.”

Customers are also asking for farm-raised meat, so Pace Family Farms has obtained its meat-handling license, Davis said. “I believe COVID has had the effect of consumers really thinking of where ... their food comes from — beyond the grocery store shelves,” she said.

Like Smith at Smith’s Nursery, Davis is unsure about the future. “We aren’t sure yet what produce season will look like,” she said. “We are hoping the demand is still high but will see once N.C. reopens and people start going back to normal. We strive to provide safe, fresh and affordable produce on our farm. We hope people will continue to support us past this.”