COVID-19 altering local fall traditions

As the season of pumpkins and corn mazes fast approaches, farms and pumpkin patches have been preparing fall activities with COVID-19 precautions.

Kyle Vesperman, of Vesperman Farms in Lancaster, Wis., said preparations are underway to lessen high-touch and crowd-congested areas for their fall season, which starts Sept. 19. But activities won’t be eliminated, as he hopes to offer some normalcy in a year when COVID-19 has disrupted many other activities.

“You come to the farm to escape and have a fun afternoon, and we want to keep that as much as possible,” Vesperman said.

All area farms and pumpkin patches are encouraging, but not requiring, masks.

Michael Dittmar, of Dittmar Farms and Orchard in Elizabeth, Ill., said his business will have masks available for those who want one.

“The only place you’re required to wear a mask is on the hay ride,” he said, noting that they also will be limiting the amount of people per ride.

Otherwise, Dittmar said, everything but the pony rides will be available, including a new activity where people can drive their own tractor.

At Vesperman Farms, a curbside pickup station for seasonal treats such as ice cream, donuts and kettle corn will be offered on weekends for those not comfortable entering the barn, he said. On weekdays, guests who want curbside pickup can call ahead.

Rickie and Doris Budde, of Papa’s Pumpkin Patch in Bellevue, Iowa, have decided to cancel all usual activities at the patch this year.

However, the couple will still be selling pies and allowing guests to pick their own pumpkins right off the vine starting around Sept. 15.

Budde also wanted to use this COVID-19-affected season as a way to give back to all the people who have supported and helped him throughout the years.

He’s letting people take pumpkins without paying, though he said he doesn’t want people taking and then reselling his pumpkins.

“If they can make a donation, that’s great, but if they don’t have any money or are struggling, I do not care if they pay for them or not,” Budde said.

Pam Schuster, of Schuster’s Pumpkin Patch in Dubuque, said most of the changes will affect children’s activities like bounce houses and the “corn box,” which included many toys.

“I’m sure they’ll be disappointed, but it’s just not safe to have up right now.”

Instead, Schuster said, the business hopes to put together a scavenger hunt to keep children occupied and outside once the season starts Sept. 26.

Other Schuster’s Pumpkin Patch staples, including the corn maze, lunch stand and pumpkin blaster, will stay the same with increased disinfecting, she said.

Sherman’s Pumpkin Farm and Corn Maze in Manchester, Iowa, officially kicked off its 40th anniversary season over the weekend.

“We had some anxiety about opening at all,” Dean Sherman, manager of the pumpkin farm, said. “But we had the crop in. We’re just like everyone else in business. We’re trying to think of what we can do safely while still running a business.”

When arriving at the farm this year, Sherman said, guests will be handed a slip of paper listing all the farm’s products for purchase, including pumpkins, gourds, squashes, hay bales and corn stalks.

One person in a group can indicate what he or she will be buying on the ticket and bring it to the check-out counter, which has been moved outside. Sherman said this avoids having the check-out canopy crowded with extra people.

The farm will have a Pinocchio-themed corn maze. Since family units typically enter the maze together, he said not much will change.

However, Sherman’s did decide not to have any group gatherings or hay rides.

“Normally, we have 18 to 20 people (on a hay ride) practically sitting in each other’s lap. We decided that was not a good idea,” Sherman said.

He added that the Trunk Trick-or-Treating event that traditionally closes out the season at the end of October will not be happening this year, as it has drawn thousands to the farm in the past.

Vesperman said he’s unsure of what crowds will look like in a COVID-19 season. While most of the farm’s business typically occurs on weekends, more families who are working or taking classes online may decide to visit mid-week, he said.

No matter what crowds look like, Vesperman said he believes fun fall traditions can still take place, especially in outdoor venues like pumpkin patches.

“I interact with more people in a Wal-Mart than I do on the farm on a busy afternoon,” he said. “I think we can do this and do this safely.”