North Carolina farm adjusts, offers events amid pandemic

MOUNT ULLA, N.C. (AP) — Being the director of fun has never been so complicated.

Michelle Patterson, the “director of fun” who oversees Patterson Farm Market and Tours, has been planning and executing farm-related events for decades. While strawberry picking in the spring is popular, Patterson Farm’s agritourism business flourishes in the fall, when families and school kids flood its acres to enjoy pumpkin patches, hayrides and corn mazes.

Organizing those events is something Patterson loves, but this year, the job comes with more complications and challenges.

“It’s been a little more stressful being the director of fun because you want to follow all of the guidelines,” Patterson said. "We are having to really evaluate everything we’ve done in the past and take those best practices and add new practices and really think outside of the box.”

The guidelines that Patterson is following come from a variety of sources, including the Center for Disease Control and Gov. Roy Cooper. Last week, Cooper announced specific guidelines intended for fall attractions like Patterson Farm Market and Tours.

Among other measures, Cooper’s mandate asserts that events such as indoor haunted houses and train rides conducted for amusement purposes only must remain closed through phase 2.5. Fall events like pumpkin patches, apple orchards and animal attractions are permitted to continue, but must do so at 50% capacity.

Implementing these measures has given Patterson a new set of challenges, but it’s also led to ingenuity. One of the farm’s largest economic drivers, Patterson said, has been hosting school field trips to the farm and corn maze in the fall. Since gathering restrictions have limited the farm’s ability to do that, they’ve gotten creative.

“We are offering virtual field trips and experiences as well,” Patterson said. “One of the things that we have learned about virtual, is that, while we miss people being here, it has opened up lots of possibilities. We can do virtual trips on things that we may not have been able to do before and reach people that we have not been able to before.”

For virtual tours, a staff member uses a live video feed to walk students through the farm and corn maze, asking them questions and giving them information about the farm. The virtual tours have allowed Patterson Farm to expand its reach. The farm recently hosted a tour for a class from a school in Georgia.

Outside of online tours, the farm has had to adjust its protocols for in-person visitors. While the pumpkin patch, playground and corn maze is still operational, the farm did have to nix some of its longstanding attractions.

“We’re saying, ‘Different experiences, same fun,’" Patterson said. “One of the most popular things has been our corn pit and that’s one thing we know we will not do this year.”

Although the fan favorite corn pit will be closed this year, Patterson Farm’s playground will be open.

In addition to closing some events, the farm has implemented online ticketing and will limit the number of people who can be at the farm at a given time.

Fall is typically a time when Rowan County sees a boom in tourism and outdoor activity, with the N.C. Transportation Museum’s Thomas the Train event and Dan Nicholas Park’s Autumn Jubilee bringing in thousands of people. Since those events have been canceled, activity-based events have become the main drivers, said James Meacham, the CEO of Rowan Convention and Visitor’s Bureau.

“Stuff that is going on is more activity based as opposed to big events,” Meacham said. “It’s more about going to a farm and picking a pumpkin instead of a concert where there are 500 people packed together.”

Meacham said he expects fall attractions like Patterson Farm to help a tourism economy that is down at least 20% in revenue from last autumn.

As new guidelines continue to come down from the federal and state level, Meacham is focused on keeping fall attractions informed.

“A lot of it is just keeping your ear to the ground,” Meacham said. “We’ve learned that the governor will release changes and we don’t have any preemptive to what they are and once we get them, we’ll spend the better part of a few days reading through them and analyzing them.”