By Marlee Moore
Antsy Alabamians seeking outdoor autumn activities will find open spaces perfect for social distancing at agritourism operations across the state.
These pumpkin patches, corn mazes and apple orchards showcase agriculture thanks to farmers like Rusty and Beth Daniel of 4D Farm in Cullman. They’re taking precautions to ensure a safe space where families can explore kid-friendly attractions while interacting with agriculture.
“I’m optimistic that this October will be wonderful,” said Beth, mom to Lane, Brac, Colt and Navi Jane. “People are ready to enjoy the outdoors. The farm is so spread out that it allows people to spread out, too.”
Field trips form the bulk of 4D’s agritourism business, but the COVID-19 pandemic brought spring visits to a screeching halt. Field trips for 3,000 schoolchildren were canceled this spring. Beth would usually have 6,000 children booked for fall field trips but had just 100 as of September.
Attractions include a cow train, zip line, giant slides, pipe swings, low ropes course, animated educational chicken show and mechanical bull. That’s in addition to their roller coaster, pumpkin patch and corn maze. Festive food fills visitors’ stomachs and flavors the air with smells of doughnuts, kettle corn and pizza.
It’d be easy for the Daniels to turn pessimistic about 2020 (a tornado destroyed their chicken houses in April), but Beth has a sunny outlook. The former kindergarten teacher, whose colorful, whimsical decorations cater to children, is hopeful families will seek adventures at the farm starting Sept. 26.
Over 200 miles south in Eufaula, Craig Hawkins is no stranger to catastrophes causing change. The 2008 recession helped produce Paradise Pumpkin Patch when visitors dwindled at Hawkins Ridge, his decades-old hunting lodge in Barbour County.
Hawkins and his children, Becky and Jake, will hold special events this fall, including a military day for nearby Forts Benning and Rucker and a day catering to children attending virtual school.
“We don’t have a single field trip booked,” Hawkins said. “That’s thousands of dollars lost.”
That reality mobilized the Alabama Farmers Federation. Staff created social-distancing signs, sent out media kits and produced social media graphics for agritourism venues. The Federation also worked with Sweet Grown Alabama, the state’s agricultural branding program, to list agritourism operations at SweetGrownAlabama.org.
Hawkins’ biggest draw is a plethora of animals — such as camels, zebras, ponies, donkeys, goats, chickens and Watusi cattle.
Because of the pandemic, he has increased personnel and will implement special cleaning before opening the first weekend in October.
At Cornutt Farms in Marshall County, autumn agritourism arrives earlier. The row crop and cattle operation opens its Sunflower Patch in September, preceding an October Pumpkin Patch.
Cara Cornutt planted the first sunflowers and pumpkins three years ago after graduating from Auburn University. It’s her way of diversifying the multi-generation family farm and helping kids enjoy the sights, smells and sounds of agriculture.
Cara said families are always occupied, with moms snapping pictures in the sunflower field, kids enjoying the tractor playground and grandparents cooling off under a multipurpose barn.
“You have to have teamwork to make something like this work,” said Cara, referencing parents Rickey and Connie, uncle Chris and cousin Nathan.
Professional photographers are welcome during the week and weekends for special sessions, with the Cornutts lowering rates because of the pandemic. Cornutt Farms is open weekends to the public, subject to change.
Although the Daniel, Cornutt and Hawkins families farm year-round, they know the importance of opening their farms to others. It’s especially critical this year — in part because of the challenges they and others have faced.
“Our place is so big we can have several hundred people at a time and look like no one is here,” Hawkins said. “Agritourism is like farming: You’re not always going to make money. But it’s been good to us.”
Visit Facebook to learn more about 4D Farm, Paradise Pumpkin Patch and Cornutt Farms.
Find other agritourism destinations at SweetGrownAlabama.org.