How To Have Fall Fun Mid-Pandemic

Pumpkin Patch at Dubois Farms

Fishkill Farms (Photo: Jo-Anne Asuncion)

Fall in the Hudson Valley seems like a nothing-can-stop-the-show classic, with apples that ripen and leaves that change come what may. But how about those beloved fall traditions, including taking hayrack rides and downing cider doughnuts — during the pandemic, when so many festivals and popular gatherings have been cancelled, are they still on?

The good news is that fall fun is still available, but with a twist. Some orchards, for instance, now need reservations, and many hayrack rides have become drive-thrus. Here are some of the region’s best outdoor seasonal favorites, like pumpkin patches, corn mazes, and cider doughnuts — along with the lowdown on what reservations or other special COVID-19-cautious arrangements are required.

Apple Picking by Appointment

Apple Tree (Photo: Robert Rodriguez, Jr.)

Autumn in New York simply cannot happen without a day spent meandering around the Hudson Valley’s stunning apple orchards. The upper Hudson Valley is home to the century-old Indian Ladder Farms, which offers both u-pick apples and, for the adults, a cidery and well-spaced outdoor biergarten. In the Mid-Hudson is Fishkill Farms, normally mobbed on “fall festival” weekends. This year, it’s scrapped the face painting and live music, although a fiddler will still roam the grounds for a festive feel without a gathering crowd. Hop online and secure a reservation before visiting to ensure maximum safety precautions. Though its name is coincidental, it’s certainly pandemic-appropriate: Masker Orchards features 14 apple varieties on over 200 acres of rolling lower-Hudson Valley land. You can drive around the orchard field and welcomed to bring your own picnic, but all other food services on site will be closed. The expanse of nearly 10,000 trees is spacious enough for a safe weekend activity, with no reservation required.

Pumpkin Patches Take Precautions

Pumpkin patch at Dubois Farms (Photo: Glory G. de Leon)

If October were a country, it’d be a shame if pumpkins weren’t the emblem on the fictional flag. If you’re as obsessed with the month as I am, pumpkin patches are already on your fall festivities. Along the upper Hudson Valley, Greig Farm grows various pick-your-own crops for summer until fall. You can find sugar pumpkins for baking and field pumpkins on picturesque acres of land with apple orchards in the distance. Currently the farm does not require reservations or have limited capacity on its 100 acres. Kelder’s Farm in the mid-Hudson grows pumpkins of all shapes and sizes in their wide fields. While a reservation is preferred, walk-ins are also allowed at Kelder’s Farm. Towards the lower Hudson Valley, Barton Orchards welcomes all for their pick-your-own experience that includes an apple orchard on their 120-acre land. Make sure to purchase tickets online beforehand as well as arrive around your scheduled check-in time. 

Corn Mazes Offer Space

Fishkill Farms Corn Maze 2020 (Photo: Josh Morgenthau)

Feel free to antagonize your quarantine group with punny jokes on your socially distanced trip to the cornfields. Cornfield mazes always strike an image of landing UFOs and aliens, most likely inspired by my love for animated movies — but rest assured these mazes are fun for the whole family and do not involve extraterrestrial beings. Windy Hill Orchards in the upper Hudson Valley encourages visits to their walk-in fun corn maze, which you can attend on an apple-picking trip on this kid-focused farm. Kesicke Farm in the mid-Hudson features a petting zoo in addition to their pumpkin patches — visit some goats and then go home and bake a pumpkin pie.  The perfect fall weekend! All tickets are available for purchase on-site only. Outhouse Orchards features an elaborate — and well-spaced — corn maze, along with opportunities to pick pumpkins and apples. Reservations can be made here. And Fishkill Farms has debuted a 2020 corn maze that spells out a resonant message that can be seen from above: REJECT RACISM.

Cider Doughnuts to Order Online

Apple Cider Donuts (Photo: Robert Rodriguez, Jr.)

I am not ashamed to admit cider doughnuts are my favorite part about fall. Luckily, the Hudson Valley is home to cider apples and farms with on-site bakeries. Greige Farm in the upper Hudson region has a farm market and kitchen. This year they’re hosting a self-timed, run-on-your-own Cider Doughnut 5k Trail Race, in which winners from each age group will win free cider doughnuts for the rest of 2020. If you’re simply looking to pick up some pastry, consider ordering online to limit unnecessary contact. Jones Farm in the mid-Hudson is popular for aromatic cider doughnuts, and its entire bakery has curbside pickup if you’d prefer not to enter the market. Curbside is also available at the lower-Hudson’s Barton Orchard’s, another farm that features a cafe and market of locally grown and produced items. 

Haunted Houses Go Drive-Thru

The Headless Horseman (Photo: Jo-Anne Asuncion)

At some point the fall season shifts from an image of fuzzy sweaters and soft candlelight glow to an eerie, creepy Halloween world. Double M Haunted House in the upper Hudson region will open its “Dead End Road Drive-Thru Experience.” You can enjoy cider doughnuts and other snacks in the comfort of your car. The Headless Horseman in the mid-Hudson has replaced their usual hayrides for a drive-thru experience that promises a terrifying thrill. Blood Manor, a haunted house just outside of NYC, will allow small groups to enter haunted rooms one at a time. Before entering the attraction, all guests must have their masks on and temperatures checked. Spooky season persists!  

Sleepy Hollow

The Great Jack O’Lantern Blaze (Photo: Jo-Anne Asuncion)

Due to the pandemic, most of the usually crowded Sleepy Hollow events have been canceled, but the Great Jack O’Lantern Blaze lives to see another year. The site will operate with socially distanced rules in place and a reduced capacity of 67 percent. To ensure masks are in place at all times, there will not be food or drinks welcomed or served. No walk-ins are allowed, so make sure you have your tickets purchased online beforehand. See this list here for more information on the remaining events that plan to continue this year. 

New Fungi on N.Y. Apples

Apple Bitter Rot

Hudson Valley apple orchards have a growing new worry on their hands. Scientists have identified a pair of fungal pathogens not previously known in the region that cause the disease dubbed “bitter rot” — which, as the name suggests, causes warm-weather fruits to decay and die. The new species were found infecting fruits both in the field and in storage. And it’s only likely to get worse. 

Apple Bitter Rot (Photo by Srdjan Goran Acimovic)

The team behind the discovery, led by plant pathologists at Cornell University, says bitter rot in New York has been known to wipe out upwards of 20 percent of a given orchard’s crop on average, and local incidence has been steadily rising in recent years. For organic farms, the losses could be as grave as 100 percent. 

A Known Fungus Makes Its Debut in New York

It’s a new development for a familiar foe; bitter rot, brought on by fungi from the genus Colletotrichum, has long wrought devastation on fruiting plants all over the world, from apples and peaches to papaya and citrus. Of the newly identified species, the researchers say one (C. chrysophilum) shouldn’t even be in apples at all, as it’s typically known to infect tropical and subtropical fruits like bananas and cashews. 

“Not anywhere in the world has this species been described as a pathogen of apples,” Srdjan Acimovic, of Cornell AgriTech’s Hudson Valley Research Laboratory and senior author on the paper, told Scenic Hudson. 

But that’s not the most baffling part of the discovery. The second species the researchers identified is entirely new to science, meaning it has never been described before in any capacity. “It was shocking to us,” Acimovic said. “We were confused.”

Finding one species in an extremely abnormal host seemed peculiar enough, though the unprecedented weather conditions of the past few years — particularly in 2016, 2017, and 2018 — could provide some explanation, but finding a new species altogether seemed almost inconceivable.

“People didn’t believe us,” Acimovic says. “We had longstanding indications” that what they’d found was indeed a new species, he explained, “but we had to prove it.” And they did. 

An Unknown Fungus Is Identified and Named After New York

The team, collaborating with researchers from Pennsylvania State University, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, and Louisiana State University, sampled apples from roughly 20 farms, including a handful out of state, and was able to isolate the disease-causing fungi in 400 separate cultures. Then, the researchers sequenced the entire genome of the new species to map out what is, essentially, its “DNA fingerprint.”

“Our collaborators all over were like, ‘You were right, this is not a known species,’” Acimovic said. 

The new species of fungus is called C. noveboracense, after the Latin name for New York.

By characterizing the species as they did, the researchers now have a better shot at understanding its ability to infect and how best to fight it. “We can learn so much from that blueprint,” Acimovic said.

Whether or not these new pathogens stick around remains to be seen. There are many factors that will play into their persistence (or lack thereof), including management and weather conditions, and there’s no telling just yet what climate change will mean for it all. Conditions in the Hudson Valley are already somewhat favorable for a disease like bitter rot; the area along the Hudson River Basin represents the largest “pocket” of a hot, humid summer continental climate in this region, the researcher explained, alongside smaller swaths along Lake Ontario and the Finger Lakes. 

These are “warm weather pathogens,” Acimovic notes, and the rising trend of higher temperatures and heavier rainfall in recent years certainly is “fitting the pattern.”

Cornell runs an outreach program to connect local growers with resources and technical assistance. Farmers in the Hudson Valley who think they might be affected by bitter rot can contact Cornell Cooperative Extension specialist Dan Donahue for support.