By Tom Collins
LONDON — Western Ontario fruit and vegetable growers are scrambling to find ways to keep their roadside stands open in the era of COVID-19.
Many farmers are installing social distancing signs, not allowing consumers to touch the produce, opening online stores and bringing in debit and credit machines to avoid touching money. Some will have to hire extra employees to make sure people are following the rules.
Sylvia Millar of Millar Berry Farm at London is relaxing the rules slightly. She used to Lysol wipe all of the money she would get from sales, but soon stopped after getting a “Lysol high.”
The Millars have moved the roadside stand further up the driveway and away from the road. This allows people to pull into the driveway, and if there is a crowd, they can wait until the rush dies down before stepping out of the vehicle. “I’ve had a lot of frightened old ladies,” she said. “They come here because it’s out in the open. If they’re uncomfortable with a few people, they just stay in their car and then they get out when they see everybody is gone.”
And while still accepting cash, the Millars purchased a portable debit machine with a tap function.
One of the biggest changes for the stand is not letting consumers touch the produce. Usually the asparagus and rhubarb — their first two crops of the season — sit in big tubs and customers can rummage through and choose what they want. This year, the Millars are pre-weighing and bagging everything in advance.
Millar expects to have to hire extra employees this year as an extra employee is needed to bag, and more staff will be needed for the pick-your-own strawberry field.
She does wonder about pick-your-own strawberry sales when that opens in mid-June. Every year, they assign customers a row and ask them only to pick from that row. However, people have a tendency to believe that strawberries are sweeter in other rows, so they leave their assigned rows to pick elsewhere.
With all these extra guidelines, visitors have to make sure they listen to the rules so more regulations aren’t forced upon farmers down the road, she said.
“It’s all going to be up to the public,” she said, adding the Millars might need to kick people off the farm if they don’t listen. “They’ve got to take some responsibility upon themselves. They can’t just put it all on the business owners.”
For Wendy Fleming, of Fleming Farms in Oxford County, only hands back clean money. Cash from customers goes in one bin and change is given back from another bin. Each day’s collected cash is put away untouched for a week. At that point, she figures the money can be safely used as change to give back to customers. She also accepts e-transfers and has a tap debit machine.
There’s hand sanitizer for customers to use, and Fleming wipes down the area after every customer, or if there’s a rush, every 15-30 minutes.
“We’ve been adjusting and adapting as it’s been ongoing,” she said. For pick-your-own strawberries, the employees may wear plastic faceshields or be placed behind Plexiglas to keep them separated from customers.
To ensure all of the produce isn’t exposed, she’ll only put out a dozen baskets at the stand at a time. When quantities start to get low, she’ll run back to the cooler in the garage and grab a few more baskets.
Fleming said business has been good so far and expects it to be busier than normal throughout the summer.
“People are really making a point right now to support local and a lot of people are wanting to avoid going into a grocery store,” she said. “People are looking to get outside and do things that are low risk.”
Birgit Walch, of Walch Family Strawberries at Stratford, said her family has been too busy with cash crop planting to think too much about the four roadside stands that will open in the middle of June. However, she will follow all the regulations laid out by the local health unit.
“Whatever we need to do,” she said, “we’re going to put into place.”