Known around the world for their giant pumpkins, the Dill Farm shares how the pandemic has affected their agri-tourism and the positive fall harvest
“I knew back in March that summer tourism’s done.”
Preparing for a tough year for the home of the Atlantic Giants, Danny Dill from Dill Farm in Nova Scotia reflected back to the beginning of the pandemic during a phone interview last month.
The Dill Farm has been in Danny’s family for generations, dating back to the late 1800’s. The name achieved worldwide fame thanks to Danny’s father, Howard Dill.
In the 1980’s Howard, noticing how people seemed fascinated by giant fruits and vegetables at fall fairs and markets, began toying with his pumpkins. He focused on genetics to breed larger varieties. By 1981, he set the world record for the largest pumpkin and patented his variety, Dill’s Atlantic Giant. This began a huge tradition of competitions and weigh-offs among farmers. And although the record has been beaten many times over, the Atlantic Giant is still held in high regard.
“I think my father was doing agri-tourism before the word was even invented” stated Danny.
Now run by Danny and his sister, Diana Macdonald, Dill Farm focuses on pumpkins, growing roughly 80 varieties. Their farm usually gets a steady stream of tourists, with many coming in for day trips on tour buses from nearby cities and even docked cruise ships.
“We don’t charge admission, but of course we always hope visitors will pick up some souvenirs from our shop” explained Dill.
With COVID-19 lockdowns cancelling tourism and local events, including Windsor’s annual pumpkin regatta that draws crowds of over 10,000, U-Picks and farmers’ markets are feeling the pinch.
Although good for Nova Scotia’s wine crops, this year’s hot, dry summer has proven to be another hurdle for big produce farmers like Dill.
“It was the hottest season I’ve ever experienced. There was a lack of water and moisture, two critical things if you want to grow anything big.”
Across the country, as harvest season starts, agricultural fairs and exhibitions are being cancelled due to concerns surrounding crowding and COVID-19. However, this is where U-Picks and outdoor farms like the Dill Farm have an advantage.
“Most of our stuff is outside, and we have ample room here” said Dill.
Their farm offers lots of space for social distancing. Like any public place in Nova Scotia, guests are expected to wear masks. The farm staff help with traffic flow and stay on top of sanitizing cart handles and doors to their shop. They have even put in more outdoor washrooms to provide distancing and lessen the strain on the indoor facilities.
So after a strenuous summer, how has their harvest season been going?
“A lot of us were caught with our pants down!” exclaimed Dill. He described the September crowds feeling as big as their usual busiest time in October. It seems like many people were getting out to the markets and U-Pick farms earlier in the season than usual. He attributes the early surge to COVID-19, but he’s not complaining.
“Everyone’s been basically stuck at home since March”, explained Dill. “Now they’ve got the opportunity to let loose and get outside, take the family and enjoy the day. And then there’s the probable ‘second wave’, so I imagine everyone’s taking the opportunity while they can.”
Visitors to the farm have been generally respectful of the COVID-19 related adjustments; after months of masked grocery shopping and hand sanitizer, they know the drill.
Dill Farms held their annual pumpkin weigh-off on Oct. 3. Now dubbed The Great Howard Dill Classic in honour of the man who started it all, the contest was smaller than previous years, with Dill Farm choosing to forgo sponsorships from local business after a tough few months.
“The least we could do is weigh the pumpkins for the growers that have been growing them all year” said Dill.
Despite the long summer, the fall harvest season has started off on a strong note for the pumpkin farm. This October has a rare five weekends, offering a hopeful outlook for many agri-tourism farms, and ample opportunity for families to come out and take a picture with an Atlantic Giant.
“Enjoy yourself and be patient” said Dill about people going out to visit farms this season “Understand that we’ll get through this together.”
Farmwork to Feed Canada (F2FC) is a national volunteer not-for-profit initiative by Canadian communication professionals, students, and recent graduates in communications. F2FC collaborates with farmers, and agri-businesses amid COVID-19 pandemic-related challenges to Canada’s food supply and food security, to engage Canadians, pro bono, with compelling stories about their food system and build support for Canada’s farmers, food producers, and their essential skilled workers.