For the past few weeks, people from all over the Albuquerque metropolitan region have been flocking to Heidi’s Raspberry Farm in Corrales early on Saturday mornings to pick pints of tart, delicate raspberries.
Pick-your-own (PYO) or you-pick operations like Heidi’s have been allowing people to head to the fields to harvest their own produce across the state. Unlike many other retail businesses, the COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t put their operation on hold.
PYO operations have been documented in the United States as far back as the 1830s when apple growers in New Jersey and New York advertised country outings of picking and picnicking among the fruit trees, according to pickyourown.org, a website dedicated to helping people find pick-your-own farms around the world.
New Mexico Agriculture Secretary Jeff Witte said in an emailed statement that he thinks it’s great when people have an opportunity to learn first hand about where their food comes from.
“New Mexico has so much to offer when it comes to agricultural products, and (you-pick operations) are an important opportunity for consumers and producers to come together,” Witte said.
Jessica Rowland, a lecturer in the University of New Mexico sustainability studies program, said that you-pick operations serve both a social and economic function.
“Having folks in the area get more engaged with local agriculture and small scale farming – being right there on the land and seeing how those kinds of operations work – I think that can change people’s mindsets about how important it is to support local agriculture and particularly certain kinds of food production that are more aligned with healthier environmental outcomes,” Rowland said.
Rowland said a lot of people aren’t familiar with how their food is grown and harvested, which creates a disconnect between them and the land.
“Often people just get it from the grocery store, so I think being a part of that process, seeing where and how things are grown and then understanding how (it’s) harvested too, is something that not everyone has a chance to do,” Rowland said.
Rowland explained that there is also an economic motive for small farm operations to embark on agritourism, or events that encourage the public to visit farms.
Where growing raspberries to sell as produce in stores limits production to just a few months a year, you-pick events enhance revenue opportunities, help build brand awareness and reduce labor costs, Rowland said.
“I think if you're focusing on the producer side, there's a huge economic benefit because the PYO kinds of operations allow flexibility,” Rowland said. “It allows a producer or a farmer to diversify her business – going beyond making jam or the other products that she does, she's able to open the farm for this agritourism type experience that helps support their business in a number of ways.”
According to an Albuquerque Journal article about pumpkin patches in New Mexico, agritourism efforts like you-pick-operations “could be the key to survival for small family farmers in New Mexico faced with falling farm prices and rising expenses.”
This year, Heidi’s and other PYO operations have made adjustments in order to comply with Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham’s public health orders in the face of the coronavirus pandemic.
Farm owner Kirsten McCall of McCall’s Pumpkin Patch in Moriarty told the Daily Lobo that unlike Heidi’s, they are still unsure about if they will be able to open this fall.
“The corn maze is cut and the pumpkins are grown, but we still don’t know if we will be allowed to open this fall,” McCall said. “We are trying to do the right thing, but it’s been a big struggle.”
According to the Mayo Clinic, outdoor group activities are considered lower risk than indoors activities in regard to the spread of the coronavirus.
“When you're outside, fresh air is constantly moving, dispersing these droplets. So, you're less likely to breathe in enough of the respiratory droplets containing the virus that causes COVID-19 to become infected,” the Mayo Clinic website stated.
Though the New Mexico Department of Agriculture hasn’t released any specific guidelines for PYO operations, the Maryland Department of Agriculture suggests face masks, social distancing and no ill persons present.
“Obviously, things may look different during a pandemic, but PYO operations provide a great opportunity to get the freshest products, direct from those who grow it,” Witte said. “Together, you help New Mexico grow economically.”
Lissa Knudsen is the news editor at the Daily Lobo. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @lissaknudsen