Local ‘you-pick’ farms adjust to COVID-19 as strawberry season kicks off

Business

HAMPTON ROADS, Va. (WAVY) — Social distancing has impacted a number of honored traditions. Spring strawberry picking is now one of them.

When the shutdowns began, “you-pick” farming operations didn’t quite fit into any category. With no clear government permission to stay open or orders to close, each farm was left to design their own operation plan.

“It was a terribly hard decision to make,” explained Mike Cullipher with Cullipher Farm in Virginia Beach. “Our whole business model is designed around families or people coming to the farm. We struggled with it really for about a month.” 

Cullipher Farm decided it was best to stop all “u-pick” business, for now.

“At any one time, we could have 325 people in the field picking,” said Cullipher. “We just didn’t feel like we could monitor that or manage that effectively.”

They switched to an online ordering system and drive-through pick up at their farm market on Princess Anne Road.

And with no customers to pick berries, Cullipher found some unlikely new employees: the Kellum High School girls basketball team.

“Like most all businesses and everybody, you’re changing on the fly and doing things you didn’t think about before,” said Cullipher. “I’m sure if you ask these basketball players two months ago, they would never have imagined picking strawberries every morning.”

Not every you-pick operation decided to close. Hickory Ridge Farm in Chesapeake is still open for visitors.

“When it first started happening, we didn’t know what to expect. We feel blessed that we can be open at all,” said Robin Pierce, a co-owner of Hickory Ridge Farm. “That’s why we’re taking the social distancing and things like that so seriously because we do feel very fortunate.”

In order to open for strawberry picking, Pierce says the made a lot of adjustments fast. So far, it appears to be working.

“We have signs in the field that separate people into sections. We have hand-washing signs, we have hand sanitizer at the beginning of the field. We actually installed a sink on the side of the farm stand this year so we could have running water, soap, and paper towels over there.”

For these farmers, strawberry season is lucrative but the real revenue kicks in later. Both Hickory Ridge Farm and Cullipher Farm owners say they hope taking precautions now will pay off by the time the pumpkins are ripe and the apples are crisp.

“We hope that by doing our part we will help things overall, so by the time mid-summer or fall gets here, things will be as back to normal as they can,” said Cullipher.

Cullipher Farm has operated in Virginia Beach since the 1850s. Mike Cullipher is the fifth generation of family farmers to run the business his son will be the sixth. The farm operated for 170 years before the coronavirus and they have every intention to continue operating under limited circumstances until the pandemic passes.


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