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Despite pandemic, agritourism brings in profit
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Despite pandemic, agritourism brings in profit

Tourists visit Eckert’s Family Farms

Tourists visit Eckert’s Family Farms in Belleville, Ill., near St. Louis. On average 2020 was 5.7% more profitable than the year before for Illinois agritourism operators.

While the COVID-19 pandemic has challenged agritourism, a survey of businesses showed 2020 was a more profitable year for many than 2019.

Breanna Ellison, professor of agriculture and consumer economics at the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana, said the results showed that on average 2020 was 5.7% more profitable than the year before for Illinois agritourism operators who were surveyed.

They credited the profitability to increased traffic. People wanted to support local foods and to have an enjoyable experience druing the pandemic. On average, the businesses had 17% more customers.

She noted that “on average” it was profitable, but some businesses had to close for an extended period or the whole season. They had no income and continued expenses.

Ellison and her team at the university collaborated with the Illinois Specialty Growers Association and the Illinois Farm Bureau to assess the initial impact of COVID on agritourism in Illinois. She unpacked the results of the study at the virtual Illinois Specialty Crop Conference Jan. 6.

The results are based on two sources, an online survey of 43 agribusinesses and information gathered from 176 agribusiness websites. Pumpkins were the most common product, but growers also sold veggies, apples, dairy, flowers, meat, eggs, herbs or had tourism activities.

Of those surveyed, 23% said they were closed at some point in the pandemic, most often in March, April or May. Fifteen percent closed temporarily and 7% were closed all year.

Of those surveyed, 88.4% said they had some regulations regarding masks at their businesses. About the same number increased hand washing and sanitizing efforts. More than half had pickup produce boxes, and slightly under half limited their number of guests. Only 20% required buying tickets in advance or pre-registration.

Most businesses upped their technology — some for cashless payment, others increasing their social media presence and expanding their websites.

But operators reliant on weddings and school trips “are really hurting.” Many expressed concern about looming lockdowns over the winter, Ellison said.

Drew Groezinger, another speaker at the conference, said his business, Clara Joyce Flowers, suspended its on-farm experience program this year.

The popular program allows guests to pay to work at the flower farm in the hills of Jo Daviess County in northwestern Illinois. It started when a woman was interested in having her mother and sister join her on the farm for a day. It does require careful supervision, is labor intensive and adds liability, Groezinger said.

Part of the reward is seeing people enjoy the beauty of the flower fields and learn new skills, he said.

The program will return when the pandemic is under control, Groezinger said.

Other established agritourism sites, including Rendleman Orchards in southern Illinois, continued to evolve during the pandemic.

Michelle Stirles, vice-president and fifth generation at the Alto Pass farm, said they modified their U-pay station last year. She said the orchard also had professional help in redesigning its retail space, which has improved flow and appeal.

Rendleman Orchards also upped their game with online sales and shipping, designing clever packaging for peaches, apples and canned products.

“We know shipping is the future,” she said.

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Phyllis Coulter is Northern Illinois field editor, writing for Illinois Farmer Today, Iowa Farmer Today and Missouri Farmer Today.

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