Apr 6, 2020How to operate a strawberry U-pick during the COVID-19 pandemic
North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper has issued a stay-at-home order, which went into effect on Mar 30.
COVID-19 has rapidly changed the individual freedoms that many of us took for granted, to ensure the greater good of public health and the safety of our society. The COVID-19 pandemic is not expected to be over any time soon, and it is more than likely that most, if not all, of our strawberry season will be affected by stay-at-home orders, social distancing and hygiene measurements.
As recognized by the Secretary of Agriculture as well as the Commissioner of North Carolina, agriculture is an essential part of this country and our state. Agriculture employees can go to work, but should carry the Notice of Essential Food and Agriculture Employee (PDF) form with them at any time.
We don’t believe that complete closures of U-pick operations are likely at this point. However, the spread and curve of the virus dictates policy decisions at the moment, and it is each of our duty to help prevent the spread as good as we can. This can be especially challenging for strawberry U-pick operations.
While following North Carolina State University’s (NCSU) general guidelines for U-pick operations cover general food safety considerations, we went through some specific scenarios for you to give possible ideas on how to make sure your customers, employees and you stay safe.
How to operate a U-pick operation
Preventative measures (see also: NCSU’s general guidelines for U-pick).
Considering using cash-less money transfers such cards or online transfers (Facebook Marketplace, PayPal, etc.). If cash is used, your employees need to wear gloves and hand-sanitize after every transaction!
Postpone any large events or gatherings to avoid large numbers of people in close proximity. Masks are not necessary, as they are not protective to healthy people, but prevent the spread of the virus from sick people.
Provide handwashing stations and/or hand sanitizer to all customers and employees. Make sure that handwashing stations are being used!!! Provide gloves to customers, some might want to use them.
IMPORTANT: Disinfect surfaces (reusable bins, buckets, railings, doorknobs etc.) on a regular basis, several time a day! Please use the official CDC list of allowable substances to select your disinfectant. Other methods are not safe and will endanger you, your employees and your customers.
Put up signs to communicate that customers should not come to the farm if they are COVID-19 positive, if they are displaying any COVID-19 disease symptoms or if they came into contact with COVID-19 positive people. Communicate not just through signs, but also through social media.
Make sure that employees stay away from work, if they are COVID-19 positive, displaying disease symptoms or came into contact with COVID-19 positive people. Communicate that to your customers through signs, social media etc., so that they can feel safe.
Practice social distancing at any time on your operation. The CDC defines social distancing as follows: remaining out of congregate settings, avoiding mass gatherings, maintain 6 feet distance from others when possible. In practical terms that means: Do NOT shake hands with employees, colleagues or customers. Do NOT stand closer than 6 feet to the next person.
Limit access of customers to the field. Make sure that customers are spread out through the strawberry field. Set up your u-pick stand in a way that you and your employees can stay 6 feet from each person as much as possible.
Possible field set-ups
There are currently no rules on how to set up strawberry u-pick operations. The following recommendations are illustrating things you could do. It is clear that not every operation will be able to implement every measure described below. However, if you can do something to increase the safety of your customers, it should be done until government regulations relax again.
Important is to limit the number of customers in the field, and to engage that customers are spread out. We have highlighted two possible setups to keep customers and employees safe during a COVID-19 pandemic (Figure 1 and Figure 2).
Customers should be waiting in small groups. The size of the group will be defined by the most recent COVID-19 county and state regulations. At the time of the article, gatherings of more than 10 people in North Carolina are banned.
We recommend smaller groups if possible. Try to gather families together. Each group should be 6 feet apart from each other. Markings on the ground could show were groups will be gathering. U-pick fields could be divided into block-zones (Figure 1) or row-zones (Figure 2).
Divisions can be done with tomato wire. Only every other zone would be populated with a group of people at the time. Hand sanitizing options (if available) should be provided before entering and leaving the field. If possible, maintain a directional approach to lead your customers through the field.
This layout is easier to realize than the block layout (Figure 1), but will accommodate less customers at a time. Two rows build one zone. Customers are moving in alternating zones along beds to the other end of the field. The brown arrows show customer movement. Colored sticks could be used to mark the rows in which customers went last, so that alternating rows can be used to let in the next group of customers.
At this point of time, this is an academic approach and the reality will look different. However, please use those templates as recommendations to implement as many elements as you feel comfortable with. The safety of your customers and employees should be on top of your mind, and distancing measures as well as the availability of hand sanitizing equipment should have the priority of your implemented measures. Especially the row-zone layout
(Figure 2) is easier to realize and relatively flexible. COVID-19 Strawberry resources: Please subscribe to the NCSU strawberry portal for daily COVID-19 updates, covering topics from Labor, Sales, Food Safety, Marketing to community work and how to cope with stress/depression.
Please visit our NC State COVID-19 Farmers Resources homepage, updated every Wednesday, in which you find a collection of all resources found over the week + farmers’ market availability and County Extension Center operations.
Please visit the NC State COVID-19 Food Safety Resource page. Please visit NCSU March Strawberry COVID-Chores.
– Mark Hoffmann Small Fruits Extension Specialist, Assistant Professor, Strawberry and Grape Horticultural Science NC State Extension, NC State University