Governor eases initial agritourism COVID restrictions

— Created September 2, 2020 by Kathy Reed

By Kathy Reed

Governor Jay Inslee’s COVID guidance relating to agritourism, released Aug. 20, drew such immediate backlash from agricultural groups and citizens, that updated, less restrictive guidance was released last Friday afternoon.

Initial guidance would have restricted farms’ ability to conduct animal viewing; hay, wagon or train rides; children’s play equipment/games; and fire pits/bonfires. The new guidance allows those activities, provided strict sanitation and social distancing requirements can be met.

For Island County, agritourism – the use of agricultural land for tourism, education and entertainment purposes – makes up a large chunk of the county’s overall tourism industry. Harvest time on Whidbey boasts seasonal activities like u-pick pumpkin patches, hayrides, corn mazes and more. Curtailing those activities could have made a challenging time even more difficult.

“We are pleased to see that Gov. Inslee has revised the state’s guidelines,” said Sherrye Wyatt, executive director of Whidbey and Camano Islands Tourism. “I believe he took into consideration the input from the agricultural community and revised some of the guidelines that had been initially announced.”

One online petition started on on behalf of local farms gathered more than 21,000 signatures in a week. Wyatt said agritourism is popular because it provides something visitors and locals are looking for – experiences.

“The fastest-growing segment of the tourism industry is the experiential visitor, those seeking authenticity and ways to immerse [themselves] into the culture of a community,” she said. “Part of what differentiates [Whidbey Island] from other destinations is our rural landscape and the sincere commitment to support local producers. We offer visitors something real, and there is a lot of financial savvy and value in that. Many of the best memories people have come from engaging all of the senses, which is exactly what happens when you’re doing something simple on a farm, like picking out a pumpkin.”

Those who call Whidbey Island home are no stranger to its beauty, its rural character, its bountiful farm produce and its unequaled artistic community. All of these things draw thousands of visitors to the island each year. Now, in the midst of a worldwide pandemic, tourism numbers are down. Wyatt said at one point county-wide lodging tax collections were down by 40 percent. Whidbey’s farms are not the only industry feeling the impacts of COVID-19.

“Winter is coming and that tends to be the quiet season, so we are concerned for small businesses, and the lodging community in particular,” Wyatt said. “We are hoping local residents will help pick things up by treating themselves to an overnight outing for a mini-break. Lodging owners have been taking extreme measures and following stringent protocols to offer clean and safe accommodations.

“Although it has been very difficult at times, the local business community has been able to adapt and overcome many challenges this pandemic has presented,” she continued. “The continued support of the local community is critical and very much appreciated. Making an investment in our own neighbors and helping support their businesses will benefit the county for many years to come, well after the pandemic.”

Wyatt said the pandemic hasn’t only affected tourism and agritourism. With early – and in some cases, continuing – supply chain problems, Whidbey Island’s farmers have come through in a big way to support the community.

“Since the rise of the global pandemic, the essential need to connect Whidbey Island families with farmers became even more critical,” said Wyatt. “The Organic Farm School quickly created an innovative, touchless drive-through farm stand complete with online pre-ordering.”

She also cited the new cooperative food hub established by Whidbey Island Grown as a prime example of how island farmers have stepped up to fill in the gaps created by COVID.

“This was done to meet the growing demand for safe, local food and to provide outlets to sell products,” said Wyatt. “Many traditional markets for farmers were immediately lost or impacted by COVID-19 (including restaurants and farmers markets). WIG’s new cooperative has now evolved into a flourishing food hub with four pick-up locations. Small grants from the Port of South Whidbey and Whidbey Community Foundation helped make this possible.”

Agritourism has been a mainstay for Whidbey’s local economy for more than a decade. While the pandemic has not helped, Wyatt said the strong base already established will help local farms continue to find ways to succeed.

“Offering accessible on-farm experiences and the safe handling of food have always been top of mind for local farmers,” she said. “We saw that during the 10 successful years of the Whidbey Island Farm Tour and more recently during Whidbey Island Grown Weeks. I expect our local agricultural community will continue to seek innovative ways to offer authentic experiences to visitors that are safe and meaningful.”

Wyatt urges everyone who calls Island County home to do what they can to continue to support local farms and local businesses.

 “Local farms and other businesses need support from Island County residents now more than ever,” she said. “We encourage residents to take this time to stay here, appreciate and explore both islands of our county. We’ve lost a significant amount of visitor spending. Without local support of these businesses, several will not survive this pandemic.

“Why not purchase gift certificates from local lodgings to give as holiday gifts to friends and families to visit next year?” continued Wyatt. “Why not buy gifts made right here in the islands this year, as they are more unique and meaningful? We do live in a place where people choose to spend their vacations; maybe it is a good time to remind ourselves how great a place Island County is.”

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