State Wants You To Pick Pumpkins And Apples, But Keep Your Distance

A woman selects a pumpkin at Hank's PumpkinTown in Water Mill on Sunday. STEPHEN J. KOTZ

It’s that time of year again when parents bring their excited children to places like Hank’s PumpkinTown in Water Mill, where not only can they select a pumpkin for this year’s jack-o-lantern, but burn off a little energy in a play area, get lost in a corn maze, and maybe pick a peck of apples to bring home with them.

But in the age of COVID-19, an autumn trip to the farm will not be as simple as it used to be, although guidance recently issued by the office of Governor Andrew Cuomo aims to clarify the steps that need to be taken.

“The other day, the governor put out a statement encouraging families to get out and support their local farm communities,” said Hank Kraszewski, the owner of what may be the East End’s most popular destination come September and October. “He urged people to come out and enjoy the outdoors. The kids will have a ball. We’ve got tons of physical things for them to do out in the fresh air. It’s better than sitting at home in front of the TV or a computer.”

Like most other businesses that draw large crowds, places like PumpkinTown and Seven Ponds Orchard, also in Water Mill, which is owned by Mr. Kraszewski’s brother, Tim, are required to take a number of steps that have become familiar with everyone nowadays: Masks are required; people waiting on line are required to stand 6 feet apart unless they are with their own group; there are hand sanitizer dispensers seemingly everywhere within easy reach, and employees disinfect counters, the “trains” towed by tractors around the fields, and the climbing toys on a regular schedule.

But farms that cater to members of the public, which are known as agri-entertainment in some circles, are also supposed to keep track of the people roaming through their corn mazes or picking apples in their orchards. And doing that is easier said than done, according to Ryan Murphy, Southampton Town’s code and emergency management administrator.

He said the town relies on formulas devised by Cornell Cooperative Extension. To determine the total capacity of a corn maze, for instance, one must take the total square footage of the maze and reduce it by 80 percent because most mazes are typically made up of about 80 percent corn and 20 percent footpaths. The remainder is then divided by 100 to determine the number of people allowed inside. So, a roughly 100,000-square-foot maze would be limited to 200 people at any one time.

A family searches for the perfect pumpkin at Hank’s PumpkinTown in Water Mill on Sunday. STEPHEN J. KOTZ

Capacity for orchards is determined in a manner similar to mazes, but the assumption is the trees only take up half the space, so the number of people allowed in is determined by taking the total area reducing it by half and dividing by 100. Pumpkin patches and other areas are restricted to one person per 100 square feet.

At PumpkinTown, employees keep track of the number of people entering and leaving restricted areas so they can have those figures ready to present to a code enforcement officer.

Such was the case on Sunday when complaints were lodged with Southampton Town Police that PumpkinTown was overcrowded. Mr. Kraszewski said his 28-acre site could theoretically have 5,000 people on it, but only had about 400 visitors at the time. “I went out and counted myself and was surprised there were only 161 cars,” he said.

The problem, he conceded, is that people sometimes dawdle in the parking area, blocking narrow aisles as they wait for another car to pull out so they can take the parking space or wait near the front entrance for family members to get in or out of the car. But he bristled at the suggestion that his attraction is responsible for traffic the often backs east of Southampton Village and into Water Mill. “Come out at 7 in the morning and it’s backed up, too,” he said.

A similar scene unfolded Sunday afternoon at Seven Ponds Orchard on Seven Ponds Road in Water Mill. Dozens of cars were lined up in a grass parking area outside the fencing that surrounds the 23-are site. Tim Kraszewski was busy stocking corn and other produce in the farmstand, while a steady stream of customers filed through, either to pick their own apples or give the kids some much needed exercise on the play area, where there were wooden tractors, trucks, a pirate ship, castle and numerous other attractions.

Aaron Halsey, an employee, stood near his McCormick tractor ready to take families on a bumpy hayride around the perimeter of the property. The “cow train,” with cars fashioned out of plastic 55-gallon drums fitted with plastic seats, was another major draw.

“If you are bringing your kids from western Suffolk and it’s going to be a two-hour drive, they don’t want to just pick a bag of apples,” said Mr. Kraszewski. “They want to have some fun. Plus, it gives them a chance to see where their food comes from.”