Chris and Mike Heban own Heban’s Field of Dreams in Wood County.

Agritourism farms push through the pandemic

By Madi Kregel, OCJ field reporter

Though there have been many challenges for agritourism in Ohio during the pandemic, it has also become very clear consumers are willing to support small, local businesses, and they’re looking for a reason to get out of the house. With strong local support, agritourism like Heban’s Field of Dreams and Riehm Produce Farm were able to weather the storm of 2020.

“It was like the onset of a hurricane,” said Chris Heban, who owns Heban’s Field of Dreams with her husband, Mike. “All of the elements of the hurricane have to get in place and everything is getting ready for that perfect storm, and then that storm hits. We were just not being able to do anything, our hands were tied. It was just too many unknowns.”

Some of the agritourism unknowns were addressed on Aug. 28 when Governor Mike DeWine released Phases 2 and 3 of the the State Agritourism COVID-19 Requirements. Most of the regulations had to do with animal viewing, children’s play equipment, food service and general guidelines pertaining to sanitizing and social distancing. Animal petting areas, most indoor activities and inflatable jumping activities are prohibited.

Many activities are permitted, with the condition that specific requirements are followed. With hay rides, for example, requirements include:

  1. Consider the space provided for each customer when determining the maximum number of people allowed onboard. Ensure there is six feet of physical distance between each household group. If physical distancing is not possible, a physical barrier will be utilized.
  2. Use a “load back to front” and unload “front to back” to promote one-way pattern and physical distancing.
  3. For trains, cars should be limited to members of the same household. Skip a car between households.
  4. High touch areas, such as handrails, safety rails and other common surfaces should be cleaned and disinfected between each trip.
  5. Create adequate space for physical distancing during tour check-ins. Use visual markers for reference.
  6. Have hand sanitizer available for staff and customers.

For animal viewing requirements, agritourism operations must comply with the following:

  1. Animal viewing exhibits will be held outdoors or in outdoor covered areas with optimal ventilation.
  2. Ensure six feet of physical distancing and one-way traffic.
  3. Regularly sanitize handrails, gates, and other frequently touched surfaces including employee used equipment.
  4. Install signage to discourage group congregation, or to limit numbers of people in a certain area. Customers will be reminded to be mindful of physical distancing around exhibits.
  5. Request visitors to leave the area immediately after they are done to eliminate congestion/gathering.

At Heban’s Field of Dreams, Chris and Mike have built their lifelong dream into a first generation farm outside the little town of Grand Rapids in Wood County and were careful to adhere to the guidelines as they apply to their operation. The Hebans started out over 20 years ago by selling mums and produce. Now they own 40 acres with permanent plant elderberries, hydrangeas, and now they are trying Christmas trees. Though like most everything during the pandemic, their plans for 2020 were put on hold last spring. Once the stay-at-home orders were eventually lifted and the state guidelines were released, Heban’s Field of Dreams had the chance to do some planning and thrive this fall.

“We talked about having something large per season, and then maybe having some things throughout the course of the year,” Chris said.

For the Hebans, this mostly meant checking off the boxes for the general guidelines. Heban’s Field of Dreams opened their 2020 fall season with a fall weekend open house on Sept. 19 and 20. Those who stopped by found mums, pumpkins, and other produce they could pick for their choosing. Unique homemade fall decor made by the Hebans themselves was also available to those who attended.

Because there was no prepared food served, hayrides, or other farm and fall related activities during the weekend, there were few adjustments that needed to be followed in order for Heban’s Field of Dreams to comply with the guidelines. Social distancing and sanitizing regulations were in place for the U-Pick aspect of the Heban’s Field of Dreams. This left room for the Hebans to do their work and enjoy the weekend with visitors.

“We just wanted to let people know that we’re still here,” Mike Heban said.

A similar event was held last fall with the goal of introducing people to their farm. In the past, local community members could visit Heban’s Field of Dreams to snag homemade Christmas decor, made by Chris and their daughter, Mackenzie. Over time, their ideas began to grow with their farm. They said the best part of their fall weekend this year was seeing people so happy.

“Just those affirmations and confirmations were very heart warming — it really made me happy inside,” Chris said.

The Hebans found success and joy in their opening weekend and said they had multiple inquiries about the rest of the year and their plans for the farm, and even some wedding venue opportunities. The Hebans said they are looking forward to opening officially, while making sure everything is safe and ready for the public.

Even some larger scale agritourism farms found the COVID-19 storm to have calmed a bit and are finding themselves in a better spot than they thought they would be. Riehm Produce Farm in Seneca County has been in operation since 1911. Phil Riehm, the fifth generation on the farm, talked about the farm’s opening weekend on Sept. 26 and the few changes they had to make to move forward with the year.

“We went ahead with everything as normal. We put in a giant slide this year and had some publicity with the local news. We had the best weekend we’ve ever had,” Riehm said.

With the agritourism guidelines in mind, Riehm Produce Farm made some minor adjustments to the layout of their entrance to the farm. Riehm said they re-routed the flow from the entrance to the exit to make sure those visiting weren’t coming and going at the same time.

“Pretty much everyone is on their own. We run four haywagon rides, two wagons per tractor. Before we were running only one tractor and filling the wagon about all the way full, now we fill them only about half full. It’s pretty much up to people’s discretion,” he said.

During the state shutdown, like most agritourism spots, Riehm Produce Farm questioned if they would have the opportunity to open back up.

“We kind of decided in our minds that if we could open we would open,” Riehm said.

The farm offers animal viewing of their beef cattle on the haywagon ride, and two unique ways for visitors to encounter their goats and pigs. There is a special “goat walk” where visitors can pay 50 cents to put feed in a cup, which offers a way to give the goats a snack as the cup moves the feed up platform to platform to the goats on the different levels. The pig races include three racing pigs — Burt Bacon, Booby-Q Porkchop, and Gladys Ham.

“They run for anything sweet,” Riehm said.

Because the animal experiences are all outside without “petting” involved, the only precautions the farm had to take still had to do with social distancing and sanitizing. The staff did wear masks for customer safety and the farm asked customers to wear masks around staff and in instances where six-foot distancing cannot be implemented.

Visitors to the farm also could enjoy a pumpkin cannon, a veggie launcher and a corn maze including trivia questions. Riehm said with the produce taking up much of September and October at their farm market, there could be more done with the experiences for visitors in the future, as they are very popular.

Both Heban’s Field of Dreams and Riehm Produce Farm said they did not have any encounters with the Wood County or Seneca County health departments during or after their events. For more on Ohio’s guidelines for Agritourism and Tree Farms Phase 2 and 3 visit:

www.governor.wa.gov/sites/default/files/COVID19%20Phase%202%20Agritourism%20Guidance.pdf?utm_medium=email&utm_source=govdelivery.

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