The small farming community of Green Bluff has changed since Nancy Vanover last visited more than a decade ago. There are more food vendors in pop-up tents, and a few more visitor attractions – not to mention the nearly ubiquitous face masks, hand-washing stations and signs urging people to keep distance from one another.
Vanover and her husband, Dennis, moved from the Spokane area to Yakima years ago and returned on Friday to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary. On their first day in Green Bluff they visited their favorite orchard, Walters’ Fruit Ranch, which has made a few adjustments to stay open during the coronavirus pandemic.
“We’ve been coming here since our daughter was probably 3 years old,” Vanover said. “I just like the old charm, coming together as a family and coming out to support the orchards and the growers. It’s just family and just back to the basics. I just love it.”
Vanover said the masks aimed at preventing COVID-19 are a noticeable change.
“But as long as we stay apart, I think we’re OK because we’re out in the open,” she said. “It doesn’t discourage us to come out.”
Green Bluff’s growers, who typically open their fields and orchards to the public during the spring, summer and fall, have taken different business approaches in response to the pandemic. While a few have closed, others are still open for this year’s fall harvest festival, which runs each weekend through Oct. 25.
At Walters’ Fruit Ranch, owner Jason Morrell said he moved fences and dug up trees to make room for families to practice social distancing.
“We just modified stuff. We made this area twice as large back here so it’s more open,” he said. “I made my play area for the kids four times as big, so it’s all the same stuff, just spread out.”
In years past, the ranch has welcomed about 6,000 children a year on school field trips, so school closures brought a significant financial hit, Morrell said. He’s adjusted by offering new attractions that are more pandemic-friendly, including a garden where visitors can pick their own sunflowers. Vases are for sale in the gift shop.
Walters’ and Beck’s Harvest House have begun asking customers to pay fees of up to $5 per car to reserve parking, a measure aimed at regulating the flow of visitors to keep crowds smaller than usual. Reservations can be made online or by phone.
Todd Beck, who owns Beck’s Harvest House with his wife, Kim, said they have welcomed between 4,000 and 5,000 customers each day of this year’s fall festival, while in past years daily traffic has been closer to 7,000 or 8,000. Most visit on Saturdays and Sundays, he said.
The Becks started making pandemic preparations in March, when their business and many others were ordered to temporarily shut down. They reopened in time to host their annual Easter egg hunt, with modifications, and over Memorial Day weekend they sold their goods with curbside service.
“People still wanted to come out and get out of the house, so the curbside worked really well,” Beck said. “Our great, loyal customers came out in droves and got pumpkin donuts and frozen pie and cider delivered to their cars.”
On Friday, hundreds of people roamed the grounds around Beck’s Harvest House, including the pick-it-yourself apple orchard and the giant corn maze.
Beck said he has about 40 employees working the fall festival – nearly twice as many as last year. More were needed, he said, to keep the facilities clean, guide traffic and manage reservations. All employees are required to wear masks, he said.
“I have three people just walking around, wiping tables. That’s all they’re doing, just to keep it clean,” he said. “So with all those extra steps … we feel so good about what we’re doing. I know we’re doing the right thing.”
Siemers Farm is another popular destination for pick-it-yourself fruit, but the owners decided not to open for the fall festival due to concerns about COVID-19.
“This decision was not made lightly, and we did so to protect our employees, guests and community,” Siemers says in a statement in its website. “We look forward to opening back up for strawberries next summer.”
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