PICACHO PEAK -- As the early months of the COVID-19 epidemic stretched on, the animals at Rooster Cogburn Ostrich Ranch noticed that something was different. Without crowds of people to pet, hand-feed and visit, the animals felt lonely.

“The animals missed the people,” said Danna Cogburn Barrett, one of the owners of the ostrich farm near Picacho Peak.

The ranch is home to a people-pleasing flock of ostriches, mini Sicilian donkeys, Nigerian dwarf goats, fallow deer, ducks, goats, stingray, rainbow lorikeets and other lovable, pettable creatures.

Like other non-essential services, it was closed during the early months of the pandemic. The ranch has now reopened with COVID-19 safety protocols in place.

“Over the years, animals have become so used to being petted, hand-fed and loved that each one has developed their own personalities and beggin’ ways to get treats or love from visitors. They missed that for a few months, but now that we’re reopen, they’re glad to have the people back,” Cogburn Barrett said.

During the months the farm was closed, the Cogburns worked to keep farm fans connected to their favorite creatures.

“We started an Adopt-a-Critter program in which people could sponsor an animal,” Cogburn Barnett said. “It was very popular and we appreciate the support, compassion and kindness from our neighbors and customers throughout the pandemic.”

At Schnepf Farms in Queen Creek, the pandemic closures came as the farm was preparing for its annual Peach Festival, a time when visitors wander the farm’s orchards, pick peaches and shop for items at the gift shop.

“We had to do things differently this year,” said Carrie Schnepf of Schnepf Farms. “We couldn’t let people into the orchards to pick their own peaches, so we did pre-orders and we went out and picked the peaches for customers. People loved it. We picked and sold all the peaches. It went so well that next year, we might do something similar where we can have the best of both worlds.”

The Peach Festival is one of the largest events at the farm. The other main event, the annual Pumpkin & Chili Party, is in October, a time when visitors to the farm pick pumpkins, eat food, wander the farm and ride various carnival-like amusements. Among the activities at the annual event are pig races, rides, corn mazes, bonfires, music and a pumpkin patch.

The event will go forward this year, but with certain safety measures in place.

“We’ll open in a limited capacity. This year, we’ll operate at a 35% capacity,” Schnepf said. “So it will be nice and not crowded. People will be spread out and there will be fewer people there.”

With the state fair not taking place this year, she expects the farm to be more popular than ever.

“We are really the only place nearby that will have big rides,” she said.

The farm sells a variety of baked goods, including artisan breads, pies, cinnamon rolls and other items. Farm fresh eggs and garden vegetables are also sold. To adjust to COVID-10, Schnepf Farms began a curbside delivery service with people ordering online then driving to the farm to pick up items.

Schnepf Farms once grew crops such as cotton, wheat and vegetables, including corn, and later incorporated a peach orchard. The farm later turned to agri-tourism, creating attractions and hosting events. Today, the farm is run by Schnepf and her husband, Mark, a fourth-generation farmer, and their four children.

Visitors to this year’s Pumpkin & Chili Party will be asked to bring a facial mask and to wear it on the hay ride, in the gift shops and if standing in line. When walking in outside areas, they will not be required to wear a mask except on Friday mornings.

“Friday mornings will be our mask-mandatory times throughout the farm so that grandparents and other vulnerable people can visit the farm with their grandchildren,” Schnepf said.

Farm staffers will sanitize rides, restrooms and other high-touch areas. Food stations have been equipped with plexiglass screens.

Carrie Schnepf said visitors should order tickets online.

“I would hate for people to drive out here and find out we’re sold out for the day,” she said. “At 35% capacity, I do anticipate selling out on some days.”

During the fall season, 3,500 school children visit the farm on field trips alone.

“This year, we have had teachers reach out to us to organize field trips,” Schnepf said. “That field trips are being scheduled is a huge step forward and a promising sign.”

At the Queen Creek Olive Mill, various COVID-safety protocols have also been adapted. The Olive Mill’s educational tours, in which attendees learn how extra virgin olive oil is made as well as how to use it, are now limited to 10 people or less per tour.

Its restaurant is open and some live music events are held on the weekends, although social distancing is observed.

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Melissa St. Aude is the Arts & Entertainment editor at PinalCentral. She can be reached at mstaude@pinalcentral.com.

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