Locally grown strawberries, asparagus and sweet onions are among the creations making their way into local homes again this month, and local growers are dealing with a variety of new questions amid fear over the coronavirus outbreak.
"U-pick" operations are on track to face some major adjustments, said Edgefield County resident Clyde Gurosik, largely known as the owner of Gurosik's Berry Plantation, which supplies sellers as far away as Columbia and Charlotte, North Carolina.
Heightened attention to health and cleanliness is going to mean a policy of "You touch it, you buy it," Gurosik said. "Personal hygiene varies."
He also confirmed that visitors to his facility will be expected to abide by the new standards of "social distancing," meaning at least 6 feet between one person and the next. In addition, he acknowledged another concern that arises every year in March: pine pollen, which simply means that buyers should provide a quick rinse before eating or preparing strawberries.
The past few days since his seasonal workers arrived have included exhaustive education on the topic of food safety, with particular attention on the global spread of coronavirus, largely known as COVID-19.
Hugh Weathers, South Carolina's commissioner of agriculture, was part of last week's discussion, issuing a statement about that state's food supply being in fine shape.
“As we monitor the coronavirus outbreak, we’ve reached out to farmers, grocery stores and other industry partners, and we have no concerns about their ability to continue supplying food to us all," Weathers said, also reporting that domestic transportation and retail infrastructure are well adapted to handle increased demand.
Some local producers have noticed little change on their end of the supply chain. "We do the same thing every day that we were doing before the virus became popular," said Ronnie Cook, whose acreage a few miles west of Wagener is largely dedicated to "mama cows."
"Cows still got to eat. They still have babies. You've still got to feed them. Life goes on. Really, nothing has changed for us," said Cook, who also focuses on hay, cotton, corn and pasture.
Cook, referring to his cattle, said, "The only thing we can hope for is before these guys get too big, that this virus will be gone and the market will come back. We're eternal optimists. We had the worst season last year that we've ever had, and now we're pushing it like crazy, hoping we'll get a mid-April cut, because everybody's out of hay. There is no quality hay, because we had such a terrible season last year."
Cook said the rainfall this year, coupled with warm nights, should produce a good crop of hay.
"We'll be producing hay by mid-April. I'm sure of it, and ... the horse industry's still here in Aiken County, so we've still got a market for hay," he said.
Among those teaching the next generation of growers is Ethan Busbee, an agricultural educator at Wagener-Salley High School.
"Nothing's changed thus far," he said, referring to the annual cycle local farmers face. "It's just ... a really busy time of year for everybody in the agricultural community.
He also drew a parallel between the coronavirus crisis and the ongoing challenges of raising a crop from year to year.
Society is "heading into a strange place," he said. "This is what farmers experience every day, so they're not guaranteed that money. They're not guaranteed to make the crop. This virus in the business world right now is the equivalent of a hurricane or a tornado or a drought in the agricultural field."
Gurosik, who is 70, said he pondered retirement but had a conversation with his wife, Marilyn, and discussion turned to the busloads of kids who visit Gurosik's Strawberry Plantation every year for farm tours, to feed catfish, pick (and sample) some strawberries and watch honeybees at work. That won't happen this year, he said.
"The school is canceled, for good reason, and even worse, it would be impossible for them to ensure that they could safely get them here on a school bus, where they're packed in like sardines," he said.
Plans were in place for 3,500 kids – a full season's worth, entirely booked – to visit the plantation in the spring on field trips, but those plans have now been scrubbed.
He described the global threat as "an unprecedented, deadly virus that has the potential to carry over much longer on surfaces, to spread much more rapidly and to infect many more people and do disastrous damage that is not normal for any of the previous viruses we've been exposed to."