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By Miriam Raftery

Updated May 14, 2020

April 26, 2020 (San Diego’s East County) – “Zoom our Zoo is an online, real-time animal show tailored for your audience,” a message at the Oasis Camel Dairy website reads. Owners of the Ramona-based family ranch, like many local ventures that rely on agritourism, face high costs to feed and care for their camels, exotic performing birds, racing turkeys and other animals without public events during the COVID-19 pandemic. So now they are offering interactive programs online to liven up corporate events or entertain kids with virtual birthday parties featuring “camel capers and parrot pranks” through Zoom – for a fee.

The owners,Gil and Nancy Riegler, have given employees time off and are taking care of all animals themselves. Nancy Riegler, in a message on the camel dairy’s answering machine, says the Zoom Our Zoo parties are “really fun. People ask questions…It’s a great breakup from quarantine.” 

You can also buy camel milk soaps, lotions and other products – including some scented with frankincense and myrrh, online at https://www.CamelDairy.com

The Rieglers, like many agricultural businesses in San Diego County, normally rely heavily on agritourism with open houses, onsite product sales and special events such as Pomegranate Days and Watermelon Days. But with a mandatory shut-down order in place for non-essential businesses and the public ordered by health officials to stay home for weeks and maybe months, local farmers, ranchers and nurseries are experimenting with new ways to remain viable.

Some found opportunity amid the chaos. 

When grocery stores ran out of staples such as eggs and consumers flocked to avoid crowded markets, Frank Hilliker, owner of Hilliker’s Ranch Fresh Eggs in Lakeside, touted drive-up service to buy his farm-fresh white or brown eggs, local honey, and jam in flavors ranging from “tripleberry” and strawberry rhubarb to passion fruit, pineapple and guava. He also sells baking items including flour, sugar, butter and yeast. flour, sugar, butter and yeast.

“We’re so EGGCITED that now we’re all JAMMING,” Hilliker posted on Facebook. 

He’s seen a steady stream of vehicles (photo, right) lining up to pickup his products.. Sales are cash only, “no Venmo, PayPal, debit, credit, Monopoly Money, checks, Smackaros, Clams, CHICKEN SCRATCH or cash substitute,” the site makes clear.  The San Diego Union-Tribune interviewed customers, including one who vowed not to buy store-bought eggs again after discovering the better taste of farm-fresh eggs.

Hilliker’s Ranch Fresh Eggs is located at 11329 El Nopal in Lakeside. You can view items available on his Facebook page, order by calling (619)448-3683 and pickup from 8 a.m.to 5 p.m. daily.

Despite a brisk drive-up business, Hilliker told ECM his business is struggling due to loss of wholesale business to restaurants. “No food service business is killing us,” he says.

Several local alpaca farms that normally rely on events are selling alpaca wool products online.  La Dolce Vita Alpacas in Ramona offers handmade alpaca wool rugs, capes, blankets and yarn for sale on its website at http://ldvalpacas.com/LDVA/Welcome.html.  
Atlas Alpacas in Descanso has teamed up with Alpacas of San Diego to offer goods through an online store at https://www.atlasalpacas.com/ranch-store. Their store includes apparel and home accessories, gifts and home accents, yarn, fleece and fiber. Who wouldn’t love an alpaca fleece teddy bear or alpaca fuzzball keychain in today’s stressful times?

Fort Cross Old Timey Adventures relies heavily on special events during normal times but is still selling agricultural items for pickup. “It’s lilac season right now!” The farms Facebook page states. Lilac bouquets can be purchased online at https://www.fortcross.com/julian-lilacs to assure availability.  ATM/credit cards only, no cash.

To help spread the word, the owners of Fort Cross Old Timey Adventures are also hosting weekly contests with drawings each Sunday for $20 gift certificates and $100 grand prize at season’s end. The latest photo contest encourages people to take a photo of your lilac bouquet purchased at the farm and post on your Facebook page with hashtag #FORTCROSSLILACS. Creative, humor and artistic touches are encouraged. 
Other items currently for sale include potted lilacs, raspberry plants, vegetable starters, poplar, maple,  pear, cedar and Jerusalem pine trees, manzanitas and some succulents. Call ahead and get more details at https://www.fortcross.com/.
Vineyard Grant James in Ramona, voted the #2 winetasting room in America by Travel and Leisure Magazine, normally relies on visitors to its beautiful outdoor patio winetasting area. The winery is still open for curbside pickup of  bottle sales and shipping.
Recently, owners Jacques and Suzanne Sapier offered a special for their wine club members, provided drive-through pickup of discounted wine bottles along with a boxed lunch from Marinade on Main to help out a local restaurant, too.  “We’ve had over 250 people!” Suzanne Sapier, wearing a grapevine-themed mask, told ECM. 
Key’s Creek Lavender Farm in Valley Center responded to community needs by starting production of hand sanitizers, which are currently on backorder. Their gift shop lists other items available for shipping, such as bath and beauty products, lotions, gift baskets and sachets. Check out the selection at the “shop” button on their website at https://www.kclfarm.com/. 
San Diego Seed Company has moved its classes online to teach people how to grow your own gardens while quarantining at home. They sell produce and flower seeds that are regionally adapted, locally grown and organic—available online.  
Rancho San Diego Emus in Spring Valley is selling emu oil products online such as sports rubs, Emu Blue arthritis creams, decorative blown emu eggs and emu feathers, among other items available at https://emuoil4u.com.
Julian Cider Mill, founded in 1975, is a cider-pressing operation with a store in historic Julian selling fresh local cider,, preserves, homemade fudge and other candies, honey, dried fruits, nuts, trial mix, mustards, teas, gluten free items, pickled products and seasonal favorites plus hand-crafted items such as Pendleton wool blankets, country-style aprons, candles and mugs. Now you can call to order their items and pickup curbside or have them shipped directly to your home.  
You can visit their website at https://www.JulianCiderMill.com, where as an added bonus you can also download recipes for apple cider pies and cookies too. 
Bates Nut Farm in Valley Center, founded in 1921, is set to celebrate its centennial next year. The farm relies heavily on many major events each year complete with craft fairs, rides, petting zoos, a giant pumpkin patch and more.
For now, you can help them sustain their farm by ordering items online in their gift store at https://batesnutfarm.biz/. Options include a wide variety of nuts as well as dried fruits, homemade fudge and other candies, salsas, sauces, soup mixes, snacks, seasonings, teas. glazed fruits, sugar-free items and gifts.
Son-Rise Ranch, based in San Diego, has grass-fed beef, pasture-raised and antibiotic-free pork, lamb, cage-free poultry meats and eggs as well as pet foods that can be ordered online and delivered: http://www.son-riseranch.com/.  Don’t’ want to deal with the hassle of grocery store lines? There is currently a waiting list for monthly boxes but you can still order cuts form a whole steer to stock up your freezer during the pandemic.
Demand for locally grown meats raised in healthy, humane conditions is apt to increase amid potential commercial meat shortages due to the shutdown of several major meat-packing plants in the Midwest due to COVID-19 outbreaks among employees at those plants.
Three Sons Farms in Ramona will deliver chicken meats, eggs, and fresh produce. You can order online at https://threesonsfarm.org/products. If you’re not home, you can leave a cooler or they will provide one for $3.  
Summers Past Farms in Flinn Springs  has closed to the public, but still offers items online through its store including hand-made herbal soaps in scents such as peppermint and lavender, patchouli and orange, soap sampler kits, and soap-making kits at https://www.summerspastfarms.com/shop-online.htm.
Numerous local farms are offering community supported agriculture (CSA) memberships and are offering weekly deliveries of boxes containing fresh fruits and vegetables. Some also offer eggs, honey or other options. You can find two directories of local CSA farms at ECM’s guide here.
Evergreen Nursery has three locations including Blossom Valley just east of El Cajon with 50 acres of plants ranging from fruit trees and vegetable seedlings to flowers and ornamental plants. All are open for business as a critical industry – and their model has always been drive-through for ultimate social distancing.  Visit their website at https://www.evergreennursery.com/east-county

Armstrong Garden Centers, including the El Cajon location at https://www.armstronggarden.com/armstrong-garden-centers-el-cajon, now has call-in and curbside pickup for social distance. They’ve shifted classes online including virtual instruction in container gardening, growing herbs and vegetables, as well as beneficial bugs and pest control.

Not every local farm has found a way to sustain sales during the pandemic, however.

Oma’s Pumpkin Patch in Lakeside, since closing of the Van Ommering Dairy two years ago, relied entirely on tourism-related sales. “Our only income is through visitors who come to our farm. We will lose our entire spring tour season this year,” Brenda Van Ommering wrote to a customer after the stay-home order by county health officials.  “Please think of us again come pumpkin patch season and Christmas tree time.”

Julian Mining Company and Julian Farm also rely heavily on events and tourism, including hosting the annual Julian Gold Rush Days as well as Pioneer, Native American, Revolutionary and Civil War themed field trips for school children. They also have a Farmer’s Wife gift shop, U-pick apples, petting zoo, and more.
For safety’s sake, owners of the family-run businesses have opted to shut down for now. On Facebook, they’ve chronicled their lives during the shutdown, learning to herd goats, finding four-leaf clovers with their children, and after the recent heavy rains, trying their hand at gold panning along the creek through their property where Fred Coleman is believed to have found the gold that triggered Julian’s gold rush in the 1870s.  
“Thanks to the coronavirus, we now have a lot more time on our hands,” the owner posted. He mused, “I wonder if we could find enough gold to make up for the mass cancellations and postponements?”

Miriam Raftery, editor and founder of East County Magazine, has over 35 years of journalism experience. She has won more than 350 journalism awards from the Society of Professional Journalists, San Diego Press Club, and the American Society of Journalists & Authors. Her honors include the Sol Price Award for responsible journalism and three James Julian awards for public interest reporting from SPJ’s San Diego chapter. She has received top honors for investigative journalism, multicultural reporting, coverage of immigrant and refugee issues, politics, breaking news and more. Thousands of her articles have appeared in national and regional publications.

East County Magazine gratefully thanks the Facebook Journalism Project for support through its COVID-19 Local News Relief Fund Grant Program to help make this reporting possible. #FacebookJournalismProject. You can donate to support our local journalism efforts during the pandemic at https://www.EastCountyMedia.org/donate.


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