How Nova Scotia U-Pick farms are coping with COVID-19
In order to comply with health protocols, U-Pick farms are modifying their existing operations.
By Stephanie Gordon
U-Pick operations in Nova Scotia are busy planning for the upcoming season against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In a normal season, U-Pick operations open their fields to thousands of visitors to pick their own fruit and berries. This year, farmers have to consider how their operation will adapt to the province’s public health protocols.
“Right at the moment we’re planning on whether to open or not,” says Margie Brown, agritourism manager with Blueberry Acres in the Annapolis Valley.
Blueberry Acres starts the U-Pick season in mid-July with raspberries and August for blueberries. Brown says they can see up to 500 people visiting per day for their high bush blueberries. With two months to go before they open the U-Pick, Brown is busy planning and her two biggest concerns are labour and transportation.
Their 15 acres of U-Pick blueberries are mixed in among fields of commercial berries, so Brown explains how they bus visitors to the field 95 per cent of the time. “Our fields are such that there’s only one location that people could drive there, but they’re not used to doing that,” Brown says. “I’m scared that a lot of people are going to get lost, even [when we send] them there.”
Blueberry Acres makes use of an old tour bus on their operation to drive visitors to the blueberries fields and back. With COVID-19 and social distancing protocols, that tour bus will only be allowed to bus at half, or less than half, capacity each time.
Brown explains that this poses challenges because now she has to double the amount of employees on the operation. The extra staff will help wipe down surfaces, control traffic, staff the cashier, and ensure that visitors are adhering to social distancing. In a normal season, Blueberry Acres has one supervisor out in the field, but this year Brown anticipates they will need closer to three.
“What I have to do now is go and look at all the costs, all the variables, what we can do and what we can’t do, and see if we can actually do it right now. We’re planning on it,” Brown says. Brown is looking into pre-booking tools as a way to space out customers and using social media to get the word out on what customers can expect.
Industry steps in
Marlene Huntley, executive director with Horticulture Nova Scotia, says organizations across the province are working together to help farmers.
“It’s a new world, so first time doing anything can be a little bit overwhelming especially when you have all sorts of new rules to follow,” Huntley says. “We’re hoping for U-Pick success.”
On June 2, Farm Safety Nova Scotia, Perennia’s horticulture team, Horticulture Nova Scotia and the Nova Scotia Department of Agriculture collaborated on a webinar about strategies to reduce risks associated with COVID-19 for U-Pick operations and on-farm produce sales. The webinar was attended by farmers from the three Maritime provinces.
Huntley says the webinar went well and common questions centered around coping with the different rules, hiring more staff, dividing rows, directing traffic and protecting workers. Helpful discussions took place among industry members and farmers answering these questions, but Huntley says there are many answers that have yet to be developed.
Nova Scotia’s Minister of Agriculture Keith Colwell echoed Huntley’s sentiments. “Controlling customer movement was the key concern from parking to paying. Best practices were shared. Paramount was to have clear communication with customers, clear signage and directions with enough staff on site,” Colwell added in an email after. “There was good feedback from the webinar. Farmers seem more confident and have practical ideas and strategies to help keep their customers and staff safe during u-pick season.”
Several resources were shared, such as Calendly.com, a free program for online bookings. Suppliers for cardboard products included Maritime Paper and Master Packaging. The full Guidance for U-pick Farms during COVID-19 document is also available online and details what to do for check-in areas, on farm, and cleaning protocols.
The labour question
For Brown at Blueberry Acres, the biggest concern is labour. “We’ve been short staffed for several years, and now it’s even worse.”
The farm’s bus driver and main supervisor come from Labrador and Newfoundland respectively. Brown explains that accounting for a 14-day isolation period and co-ordinating it with the driver’s and supervisor’s existing work schedules add to the list of questions she’ll have to answer before the season begins.
While having extra staff will be necessary to help adhere to health protocols, the existing labour shortage in agriculture across Canada will not make this an easy problem to solve. However, the different nature of the work could make a difference. Finding help for customer service or supervisor roles could be easier than finding help for in-field harvesting roles.
Making sure the U-Pick operations follow all the protocols means investing in new purchases such as cleaning supplies and signage.
“Trying to find the supply of sanitizer is another problem area,” Brown says. The operation has estimated they will need $3,000-worth of hand sanitizer for the 10,000 plus customers they have in a given season.
On top of sanitizer, Brown accounts for extra costs in signage, fuel, and employees. In the beginning of the year, the operation already accounted for the increase in minimum wage. “I mean [the wage increase] was significant and when I redid the budget with that, it’s like we’re getting to the point that this is not even profitable anymore.”
In response to COVID-19, the Nova Scotia government, in partnership with the federal government, announced the new COVID-19 Response and Mitigation Program that helps agricultural businesses mitigate the impacts of the pandemic. The COVID-19 Mitigation and Adaptation for Health Protocol stream can provide 75 per cent funding assistance on total eligible project costs to a maximum of $50,000 per program year. The funding is there to help Nova Scotian farms and agribusinesses comply with recommended health protocols.
U-Picks come in all sizes
For smaller U-Pick operations across the province, adapting to the new COVID-19 measures are more straightforward.
Phil Daniels owns Daniels U-Pick in Windsor Forks, an hour north of Halifax. Daniels has one person on staff, in addition to himself and his son. Daniels starts the U-Pick in mid-August for apples, pears and plums.
“My place is basically self-explanatory,” Daniels says. Visitors drive into the parking lot and arrive at a U-Pick stand that tells visitors what to do and includes a price list. Daniels explains that customers pay first, he hands them a bag, and then they go into the fields. If customers want, they can stick around for the restaurant or to use the facilities, but to maintain social distancing in the field is not as big of a problem. Daniels says visitors are usually pretty spaced out among the 20 acres of orchards.
“[The province] wants me to have hand sanitizer on site, which I always do anyway, and to advise people about social distancing,” Daniels says. “It’s really not too much of a problem because in the U-Pick people are spaced out anyway.”
With still months to go before the U-Pick starts for Daniels, he hopes that COVID-19 doesn’t impact too far into the season. While his own operation has not been affected much, he is still impacted by COVID-19 at large through family members who have year-round operations.
Amidst all the planning, Margie Brown with Blueberry Acres still finds a silver lining. Brown explains that with inter-province travel still not widely encouraged, this opens up an opportunity for Nova Scotians who have never experienced U-Picks before to explore their own backyard.
“U-Picks are a really nice place for people to enjoy going to,” Brown says. “They go to relax and enjoy picking and getting their own product. I hope [COVID-19] doesn’t spoil it so they don’t come, or that they do come but don’t enjoy it [because of all the extra protocols].”
Brown has already run into people that visit the U-Pick regularly asking when they will be open and what’s going to happen, so she will continue working toward making the necessary changes so they can open.