“My favorite flower is the sunflower,” Alexa Gomez said. “They grow faster and they live longer. And they are really pretty.”
Gomez is certainly in the right place as Swank Farms in Hollister opens for their fall season, running through Nov. 1. The You-Pick Sunflower Field has been expanded this year to four-and-a-half acres of assorted varieties of blooms, from Mammoth Russians to double blooming Teddy Bears and brilliant red Little Beckas.
“People are just in love with the sunflowers,” owner Bonnie Swank said. “We bought 16 varieties of sunflowers, dumped all the seeds together, mixed them up, and planted them. They really are showstoppers and a wonderful photo opportunity.”
After initially wondering if they would be able to open this year under all the restrictions, Swank found ways to adapt the attractions at the farm to keep them safe while still keeping them fun for all ages.
The first and biggest change was in the design of the cornfield. The traditional corn maze was not possible since it would cause people to double back when they took a wrong turn, creating unwanted cross-traffic.
“We had to move away from the corn maze to pathways so there is only one way in and one way out,” Swank said. “We will also be monitoring the number of people who can go in at one time and we will be enforcing social distancing. People still get the chance to go through the corn, but we are making sure it is safe for them.”
There are four different pathways through the corn, three of which are open during the day: a sprinter path with long straight paths for kids who just want to run; a stroller pathway with games and puzzles for more casual walking; and the Spookley Path which illustrates the story of Spookley the Square Pumpkin. At night there is the Trail of Lights and Frights, a low-key haunted trail suitable for all ages. Teens and adults will have the chance to go through a more intense section where, Swank said, “we have the right to scare you.”
In previous years, Swank Farms hosted schools on field trips, but because of distance learning that is no longer possible. So the schedule has been expanded to include two weekdays to allow parents to bring their children for a chance to run around and have fun during class times.
“It was not difficult for us to open,” Swank said, “but we had to wait to do it. I went to the health department in August and they said, ‘You can’t open because of the guidelines.’ Then we went back in September and they said the same thing. They told us to write a letter explaining why we should be allowed to open, so I did.”
She made her case based on the farm being open during the pandemic for its farmers market.
“I told them that we had been open as an essential service selling produce every weekend and what we wanted to do was not that much different. We would have sunflowers and corn, which is all farming, and I explained the pathways and our sanitation stations. They found guidelines that we could fit into so they let us open.”
The dispensation allowed them to continue with some of their other regular attractions, such as the pumpkin patch, and the goat and chicken pens. But others including jumping pillows, the cow train and the giant slide are not open at the moment due to the county’s health concerns.
“We showed them we had plans to keep those safe,” Swank said, “like limiting the use of the pillows and the cow train to only one family at a time then sanitizing them after each group. We are still working to get permission to do those again.”
If anyone missed those attractions, it was not apparent on opening weekend when the cornfield and sunflowers were the stars of the show, where children lugged huge pumpkins into wheelbarrows. And to make things even more magical, this year features the release of butterflies, kept chilled and dormant until time for them to take to the skies.
“We love the fact that it is open to everybody,” said Angel Gomez, Alexa’s father. “We want our kids to be exposed to farm life, the plants and the animals, and we want them to be able to see what farmers are doing out here.”
And his daughter? She found a sunflower bigger than her head to take home and could not have been happier.
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