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CHAMPAIGN — The goal for many businesses is to keep customers on their location for as long as possible.

“It’s always been said that the longer people stay at your place, the more money they will spend,” said Randy Graham, manager and co-owner of Curtis Orchard and Pumpkin Patch. “But last year, we kind of went the reverse of that and tried to find ways to expedite people’s visits.”

When the COVID-19 pandemic started in spring 2020, there was no panic at first. That’s because the historic family-run farm annually opens July 20 for five months.

“Very early, our thinking was that things would be back to normal by July,” he said. “But as time went on, we began to wonder if we would be able to open at all.”

So Graham reached out for help, made much easier since he is the president of the Illinois Specialty Growers Association.

“When the pandemic hit, it sent everybody scrambling,” he said. “The members of our association really stepped up and helped each other out. It helps that Illinois is a long state and producers in the southern portion of the state fed us information about their protocols with picking strawberries. We worked with the governor’s office and the Department of Public Health, and so many people worked hard, and we were able to open safely and had a good year.”

Since the farm isn’t open to the public until mid-summer, employees were able to focus on routine matters and work as normal. That was the plan, at least.

“It was exhausting,” Graham said. “We would have conference calls every week or two with growers from all over the state and discuss protocols that were acceptable to the health department and ones that weren’t, as well as what was working and what wasn’t.

“We spent a lot of time brainstorming and trying to figure things out. We worked on different plans and how to implement those plans. We were fortunate enough that we were able to put together a protocol sheet and use some templates and examples from other industries and then tweek those a little for our facility.”

The farm opened in 1980 and is known for its apples and pumpkins. It has outdoor seating, a corn maze, rope maze, Putt ’n Play and — in the fall — live music.

The pandemic did force changes. Outdoor checkout locations were added to help shorten lines and allowed people to do all their shopping outside if they chose to.

“It worked well, and some of those things we implemented we will definitely keep for this year, and some may become permanent,” he said. “We tried to look at the situation looking for a silver lining and concentrated on things that would make the customer experience better moving forward. The checkouts were all temporary last year with tents, and so the equipment was probably not the fastest or the best, but we are looking to improve those things.”

Graham said his concern is the delta variant.

“There are so many different opinions and, even though I do a lot of research on it, I really don’t know what is going to happen,” he said.

His hope: that things go as well as last year.

“We had a very clean record last year,” he said. “We didn’t have any employees get sick, and it went well. We were praying every day. I don’t mean that flippantly. We are a family of faith, and we still are, and we see the potential to have another big year.”

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