Yakima County farm owners voice concern about state’s agritourism COVID-19 guidelines

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Thompson’s Farm worker Rafeal Garcia Flores picks peaches in an orchard at the farm on Thursday August 27, 2020. Photo credit: Yakima Herald, Evan Abell.

Thompson’s Farm & Market posted a photo on its Facebook page Friday.

“Look at the pumpkins growing,” the post said, accompanied by jack-o’-lantern, farmer and sunflower emojis.

The pumpkins raised in Thompson’s Farm’s U-pick pumpkin patch had cost the family thousands of dollars to grow, said J.L. Thompson, who directs operations for the family farm in Naches, its fruit stand and associated businesses.

Thompson is uncertain whether they can recoup those expenses this year. Typically, the farm holds a number of family and children’s activities in the fall.

He had already planned to skip some events — such as a pig race and hayrides — that would attract large groups of people. But he hoped to keep the U-pick pumpkins and corn maze, based on the belief he could limit capacity and maintain social distancing.

Thompson is re-evaluating those plans after Gov. Jay Inslee’s office issued guidelines for agritourism on Aug. 20.

Those rules allow agritourism activities for counties in Phase 2 or Phase 3 of the state’s reopening plan. Yakima County, along with Benton, Franklin, Chelan and Douglas counties, is in a modified Phase 1.

That means U-pick farms, corn mazes and pumpkin patches wouldn’t be allowed in those counties, for now.

“It never crossed my mind we couldn’t do that part of it,” Thompson said of the farm’s pumpkin patch and corn maze, which have been in the works for months.

Yakima Valley farm owners and operators like Thompson are worried the new guidelines will cause them to take a big economic hit this fall.

Mike Faulk, Inslee’s press secretary, said the aim was to release guidelines before the fall, when corn mazes, pumpkin patches and other agritourism operations open.

“This was an unregulated business that we wanted to allow for safe operations,” Faulk wrote in an email. “With the fall upon us, we wanted to make sure there was guidance out there for business to safely operate. It was not deemed essential.”

But for many Yakima Valley farms, the new guidelines felt sudden. Most farmers believed they were on solid ground since their U-pick operations provided food, making them an essential business, and they were implementing COVID-19 safety measures.

“It is kind of challenging that they’re coming this late in the season,” said John Cooper, president and CEO of Yakima Valley Tourism.

Cooper said the new rules, as currently written, will impact those businesses significantly.

“It’s definitely something that’s important for our business community,” he said. “They are small businesses that have been working hard providing essential goods and services.”

Adrian Showalter, the owner of West Valley U-Pick Fruit & Vegetables, opened in early July for cherry season. The business also sells picked fruit and vegetables, but U-pick is a crucial part of the business.

The farm at 11901 Zier Road implemented several safety policies. It required customers to wear masks while picking, posted signs asking customers to maintain their physical distance, and intensified the cleaning of the buckets customers use for picked fruit.

“Of course, we understand the situation,” Showalter said.

Now he’s trying to understand why the governor’s office is clamping down on U-pick operations.

“We’ve been operating under the conditions of what they expected for essential businesses that were open,” he said.

Inslee “released a rule to sound as if we’ve been operating illegally the entire time.”

Showalter was also concerned about what he considered excessive restrictions concerning those who could operate. For example, he felt the prohibition of animal viewing would be difficult for a farm that also raises animals.

“The restrictions are such it would be almost impossible for any normally operating farm to follow them,” he said.

Showalter wasn’t alone in his frustration. The guidelines were met with confusion and criticism from farm owners and agritourism operators across the state.

Revised guidelines were issued Friday, after additional conversations with stakeholders, Faulk said. The guidelines listed additional activities, including animal viewing, hay/wagon/train rides, children’s games and private bonfires that would be allowed.

“The governor’s staff has been engaged with stakeholders in this industry from the moment they began working on this, and those discussions continued after the initial guidance was released,” Faulk wrote in an email Friday. “Staff had meetings with farmers in Snohomish and Kittitas counties this week to find safe ways to permit more activities, as we’ve done with stakeholders in a number of industries since we began implementing Safe Start.”

The revisions, however, didn’t include language that would allow agritourism activities in modified Phase 1 counties, like Yakima County.

The state has paused the review of applications from counties to move into subsequent phases of the state’s reopening plan, but has been allowing Yakima County and others to add activities that would be permitted under modified phase 1.

On Thursday, the state Department of Health released a list of new activities, including indoor dining, indoor church services and outdoor group fitness classes, that were now allowed for modified Phase 1 counties, including Yakima County.

During a press briefing with reporters last week, Washington Health Secretary John Wiesman said additional activities would be added for the modified Phase 1 cohort rather than for individual counties.

Wiesman said the state’s focus was on bringing new COVID-19 cases down to where it could start allowing students to return to school rather than allowing additional business and social activities.

He said that there had not been discussions whether to permit agritourism activities for modified Phase 1 counties.

‘They come here to pick the fruit’

The guidance defined agritourism as “a form of commercial enterprise that links agricultural production and/or processing with tourism to attract visitors onto a farm, ranch or other agricultural business for the purposes of entertaining and/or educating the visitors and generating income for the farm, ranch or business owner.”

Faulk said that’s a notable difference from a fruit stand that engages in the retail sale of agricultural products to customers. Agritourism operations generate income by attracting visitors to the farm for entertainment and education reasons, Faulk said.

But local farm owners argue that U-pick and other activities deemed as “agritourism” are deeply tied to their retail operation.

“People don’t come here to buy the fruit, they come here to pick the fruit,” said Showalter. “They could go to the supermarket if they wanted to do that. They are coming because they get to go out and choose their own produce and take them off the tree. They can see the quality. They get to make that choice; they value that choice, and that’s why they come to us.”

Showalter doesn’t understand how customers picking fruit outdoors isn’t allowed in modified Phase 1 when those same customers can buy fruit inside an enclosed grocery store building.

He fears that in the end, the guidelines could cause a massive hit to small farm operations like his with no guarantee that it would reduce COVID-19 infections.

While Thompson’s Farm runs a market, the pumpkins historically have been sold to customers who want to do U-pick, Thompson said.

“Why would they drive all the way out (to Naches), when they could get it at Fred Meyer?” he asked.

For Thompson, the new rules feel like punishment to a business that has enforce coronavirus safety measures.

“We’ve complied with every rule and regulation,” he said. “It looks like they’re just going to keep making rules until we can’t do anything at all.”

Reach Mai Hoang at maihoang@yakimaherald.com or Twitter @maiphoang

Posted By: Yakima Herald

Posted On: August 31, 2020