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Farm largely immune from virus’s economic fallout

Public events create difficulties and new opportunities

DUMMERSTON—Farms are slow businesses. An apple takes a season to grow, whether or not people are staying home during a pandemic.

According to Scott Farm’s general manager, Simon Renault, the COVID-19 crisis has affected only some parts of the farm’s business.

Most of the impact has been felt on the agritourism side of the business, he said.

Because it closed down its reservation system early in the COVID-19 crisis, the hospitality and lodging-based Landmark Trust USA felt the hit sooner than the Scott Farm.

The orchard, on the other hand, has remained on its own cycle.

“Which, in many ways, is very comforting,” he said.

The farm team members are following a familiar work schedule. About two weeks ago they finished pruning.

His job has recently required focusing on a lot of “boring” paperwork, Renault jokes.

The team is “gearing up for the season, so that means all the certification process that we go through” with Northeast Eco Apple Project, which sets mandatory standards for participating orchards and confirms that those operations are complying.

The farm is also in the process of hiring temporary foreign agricultural workers, a complicated process that involves the federal government and immigration policy.

But back in the orchard, “the big worry is apple scab, so we’re starting our spraying regimen,” Renault added.

Apple scab is a common fungus that infects both leaves and fruit. Apples with the fungus can develop “cork-like scabs” and are usually unfit to eat.

Scott Farm uses organic sprays rather than chemical-based pesticides.

“I’m always careful with the word ‘spray’ because it sounds like we’re spreading pesticides and chemicals but we’re not,” he said.

McMahon said that the farm, as an agricultural business, is considered an essential service under the COVID-19 restrictions. She is working from home so that Renault and the other farm staff can spread out in the farm’s small administration area and maintain social-distancing practices.

She added that this is the time of year that the farm normally organizes its summer and fall event schedule. Yet with COVID-19, several weddings booked at the farm have postponed. Workshops on pruning and grafting were also cancelled.

The Landmark Trust is about to cancel its annual Rhododendron Tour slated for mid-June. McMahon said she’s hoping to find a way to offer the tour virtually.

The Stone Trust, a nonprofit based on the Scott Farm property, has also postponed the organization’s 10-year-anniversary celebration.

The loss of events hurts both organizations, McMahon said, noting that the farm’s Act 250 status limits the numbers and size of events it can offer.

“But we do depend on them,” she said. “We may be seeing the impact from [the pandemic] for years to come.”

The organizations did receive funding from the federal Paycheck Protection Program, which is helping the farm and Landmark Trust keep employees employed.

Creative alternatives to events

On a brighter side, COVID-19 has also taught these historic properties new tricks.

According to Renault, this year the Scott Farm moved its annual May tree, berry, and perennial sale entirely online. The farm counts on the annual sale, which takes place during the spring when the farm’s cash flow is low.

When the farm staff realized they couldn’t host the in-person all-day sale at the farm, they became creative.

“All hands of deck — we put all of our trees, everything, on [...] a special page on the website for the tree sale,” Renault said.

It paid off. “The demand has been so large,” he said, noting that the farm had to add a third pickup day to accommodate the large response.

“So our fear of going online, and our worry that it wouldn’t be as popular, has turned out to be the exact opposite, and our sales are already surpassing last year’s sales,” he said.

For 2021, the crew is considering offering the sale both online and on site, and the farm might expand some of its farm market online.

“So this crisis has pushed us to learn new ways of doing business,” Renault said.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #561 (Wednesday, May 13, 2020). This story appeared on page A2.

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