RICHMOND—Strawberry season is in full swing, and despite challenges and interruptions from the COVID-19 pandemic, pick-your-own strawberry farms are having a record season.

“People are just thrilled that we’re open,” said Robbie Vaughan of Vaughan Farm’s Produce in Virginia Beach. “I’ve had a lot of moms say this is the first thing they’ve done in a month and a half that actually felt normal.”

Considered essential businesses, U-pick farms have implemented extra safety and social distancing measures. Strawberry picking, Vaughan said, is inherently a socially distant activity, as rows are already 6 feet apart. However, out of an abundance of caution, Vaughan said customers are now picking every other row—doubling the distance to 12 feet.

“We’ve got less people on a row than you’ll find people in a grocery store aisle, and that’s what we want.”

Farm clerks wear masks and gloves, and customers must use hand sanitizer before going into the fields to pick. Strawberries are sold by the container instead of by the pound, and customers pre-pay for a new bucket to pick strawberries instead of bringing their own containers. Once they’re finished picking, they can head right home instead of standing in line at a register.

And customers are responding well. “It’s been off the charts,” Vaughan said. “Usually this time of year we might have about 1,000 to 1,500 pickers. This year we’ve had about 7,000 to 8,000 pickers so far. We’ve never seen anything quite like it, and we’re very humbled.”

In Pittsylvania County, Motley’s Strawberry Farm also has noticed a dramatic uptick in customers. It has employed similar safety measures—hand sanitizer and self-pay stations, selling strawberries by the container, and farm employees instructing customers about distancing policies. Owner Kevin Motley also posted a video on the farm’s Facebook page showing people how to get their buckets and what to expect while picking this season.

“Everybody is really excited to get to come pick strawberries this year,” Motley said. “It’s something they can feel safe doing—get outside and enjoy a little outdoor time with their family without having to worry about being overrun with people.”

Tony Banks, senior assistant director of agriculture, development and innovation for Virginia Farm Bureau Federation, said it’s no surprise to see the tremendous turnout on strawberry farms, as many people are supporting local farms and Virginia farmers markets during the pandemic.

“Strawberry picking is a rite of spring for Virginia families, many of whom have been cooped up indoors for the past two months,” Banks said. “Pick-your-own strawberries provide an opportunity for families to participate in an outdoor activity, support local farms and enjoy fresh, healthy Virginia-grown strawberries.”