The droves of strawberry pickers begin at the start of spring every year at Warbington Farms, an agri-tourism destination in North Forsyth. Students from area schools visit for field trips during the week. Families from around the region swarm the rows and rows of plants off Little Mill Road on weekends.
Last year, the fields would be “picked out” by noon during the weekends, according to the farm’s manager Delana Heard, so Warbington planted an extra 20,000 strawberry plants this year in anticipation of the crowds.
But since the novel coronavirus pandemic began, the field trips and weekend crowds have stopped. With the strawberries ready for picking in about a week, Heard is nervous that much of Warbington’s fruit will go to waste.
“This has been a huge blow to us,” Heard said.
Easter weekend brought a slimmer of hope, though.
On Saturday, Warbington tried something new: a drive-thru Easter event. From the safety of their cars, families weaved through parts of the farm’s 40 acres, past cows and goats and, yes, the Easter bunny. Warbington staff hid giant Easter eggs along the way as part of a scavenger hunt activity. Families picked up feed cups from a table and poured food for the animals through pipes to avoid any contact.
Over 275 families participated, Heard said.
“We didn’t know how people would respond,” she said, “but they really liked it. We’ve had just a huge response [and] positive feedback from it.”
The event might show Warbington the path forward while Georgia remains under a shelter-in-place order to curb the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2. As of noon Monday, Georgia had 13,305 confirmed cases and 462 deaths, according to the state’s Department of Public Health. The outbreak has shuttered businesses, schools and government buildings and forced many businesses, like restaurants, to offer limited services.
Around this time of year, Warbington Farm is usually filled with visitors. Founded in 1968 as a commercial beef and chicken farm, Warbington transitioned into agri-tourism around 2010. Today, thousands of students come every week from schools in Forsyth, Fulton and Gwinnett counties to learn about the farming process and pick fruit. Families come to pick strawberries in the spring and pumpkins in the fall. Kids enjoy hayrides, a petting zoo and other attractions in Warbington’s “fun park.” The farm even has a barn for hosting events, like birthdays and weddings.
But the school trips and weekend visitors have stopped. Warbington had to cancel all its birthday parties for the spring. And it had those extra 20,000 strawberry plants.
Heard said Warbington has not had to make any “detrimental decisions” yet, but she was unsure how the farm could adapt to Georgia’s shelter-in-place order.
“We rely on people coming out,” Heard said.
Now, after the success of their Easter event, Warbington is planning to use that model and offer drive-thru field trips for kids and families to learn about growing strawberries and farming. They hosted their first one Tuesday and expect to host more in the future.
“People are begging us to do it more,” Heard said, “... just to give the kids something to do.”
There’s also hope for Warbington’s strawberries.
Heard said the farm plans to offer curbside delivery for pre-picked fruit. They also hope to continue in-person picking albeit with more restrictions in place, like visitors limited to picking from “even” and “odd” rows every other day to maintain social distancing and using online reservations to lessen the number of people in the fields.
“We were very nervous how we were going to sell these strawberries,” Heard said. “The event this weekend kind of planted a seed [like], OK, maybe people will still want to come out if they know it’s going to be a safe thing. So it gave us some hope.”