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A skeleton scales the wall of an Egyptian pyramid as echoes of howling monsters looped on a sound system wail through the forest.
It’s one of the scenes set up along Boone Hall Plantation’s hayride trail, which will be followed by visitors’ own vehicles instead of the traditional tractor-pulled wagon with a guide this year.
Fall is back, and so are seasonal attractions at farms across the state — but this time with coronavirus safety protocols in place. At Boone Hall, the pumpkin patch is spaced out over more land to provide social distancing, and the Fright Nights haunted house attraction will be capped at 1,500 attendees per night who must wear masks and wait in “pods” in line.
Financial strains at the end of an unprecedented pandemic-era summer have left many farms no choice but to continue on with their traditional festivities, which typically draw thousands of people and dollars to their properties this time of year. And it looks like 2020 won’t be an exception.
With coronavirus numbers off their peak in South Carolina and fall weather beckoning people outside, farms are already seeing an unexpected flow of visitors who have been itching to get out of the house and find some sort of safe fun.
“Since agritourism is outdoors, farms are better equipped to follow the necessary guidelines,” said Director of South Carolina Agritourism Jackie Moore.
Planning a pumpkin patch during a pandemic
Normally, planning for Boone Hall’s pumpkin patch, corn maze and hayride takes place in early to mid-summer, but coordinators were not initially sure if fall events would be able to return during the pandemic.
The venue has assembled this year’s attractions in record time, including the 8-acre corn maze —which reveals a portrait of Willie McRae, Boone Hall’s former co-owner, avid preservationist and South Carolina agritourism pioneer who passed away earlier this year.
“You know, a big part of people’s fall traditions is coming out here to get a pumpkin or make it through the corn maze,” says marketing director Rick Benthall. “We wanted them to still be able to do that.”
But even before the pumpkin patch, corn maze, hayride and haunted house were set up, Boone Hall was bustling.
Produce tent manager Becky Herbert says that, during the pandemic, the operation has been busier than the past seven years she’s been managing it.
“I think people like the idea of being outside shopping at a farm stand instead of enclosed in a grocery store right now,” she said.
The U-pick sunflower field has also been a big draw.
It was Amy Watson’s second time visiting with her three young children, who were picking flowers twice their size on an early afternoon in late September, giggling and carting the blooms around in bundles that dragged the ground.
“We love it, and it’s a great thing to do outside right now,” said Watson. “It would also be perfect here for family fall pictures.”
Changing things up
Instead of relying on traditional fall festivities for income, some South Carolina farmers have reconstructed their agritourism models drastically, like the owners of Thompson Farm and Nursery in Conway, which now features a drive-in theater.
Co-owner Christina Burzler started the new endeavor back in mid-June, and said families have been returning weekly from as far away as Columbia and Wilmington for the Friday night feature.
“It’s been great to have another event for income, because expenses on a farm don’t change,” Burzler said. “We have 40 animals on the property, and they need to eat no matter the outside circumstances.”
She said losing school field trips has been a hard hit, estimating 10,000 schoolchildren typically visit the farm each year. In the pandemic era, there have been close to none, and a small-business loan wasn’t enough to make up the lost income.
The drive-in has been a way to make some extra money and retain some sense of normalcy, though it required an upfront cost and effort to get the proper permits, projection equipment and movie licensing, something Burzler said a lot of other farms aren’t able to afford.
“The rewarding part for us is seeing faces every single week, even though we have all of this uncertainty going on,” said Burzler. “It’s important for us to come together as a community to get through all this.”
Thompson Farms has brought back amended fall fun, too, and with a season that is twice as long to try to make up for lost time, starting in mid-September and stretching into late November.
The farm is known for its pumpkin patch, hay wagon rides and an almost 7-acre corn maze, which this year honors “Hometown Heroes,” those on the front lines working as nurses and teachers. An aerial view of the maze reveals the phrase “Not all heroes wear capes.”
They will all be back, but with tangible reminders of the COVID-19 threat, including an arsenal of hand-sanitizing and hand-washing stations, 50 percent capacity on the wagon and social distancing signage and enforcement.
“We want to protect ourselves and our staff, but fall on the farm is a tradition,” said Burzler.
U-pick and drive-thru
Even without the hoopla of fall attractions, Marvin Bryson at Bryson’s Apple Orchard in Mountain Rest said his U-pick apple business has been incredibly busy, with more visitors than the farm hosted in all of September last year tallied prior to the autumnal equinox.
At Bryson’s, there is just a U-pick operation and a farm stand with jams and jellies, no games or billboard-worthy fall festival attractions. People are easily able to spread out and stay socially distanced on more than 14 acres, and Bryson is able to sell 90 percent of his apple crop on-site.
“I think, through all of this, people are now wanting to get out more, and this is one place they can come,” said Bryson.
He said a big problem has actually been hiring enough farm workers to keep up with demand.
“Nobody wants to work,” said Bryson. “Everybody’s drawing unemployment.”
Mark Nisbet of Eudora Farms in Salley has not faced that problem. In fact, he’s been able to hire 10 new workers to man a new operation he brainstormed that safely allows visitors to come see the more than 200 animals on the farm that typically draw crowds.
The 3-mile drive-thru animal safari park adventure was born in May. Visitors can remain in their cars and see buffalos, emus, lemurs and more for $20.
With the new setup, Nisbet said folks have traveled from an average of 45 to 75 miles away, bringing in new business and educating more families.
“This has been the perfect opportunity for us,” said Nisbet. “People have been able to see an alternative agritourism.”
Eudora is also hosting many of its typical fall attractions, including a pumpkin patch, pig races, a hay maze, camel and pony rides and limited-capacity horse-drawn wagon rides.
It might not be a full return to normalcy, but fall on the farm is back.