How to Start a Pick-Your-Own Farm Operation

This month's notes: October 2014: Apples are in full swing!  Raspberries tomatoes, corn and most vegetables are being picked in most places, most blueberries and peaches are finished. Find a corn maze, hayride or pumpkin patch here. Make your own homemade ice cream including low fat, low sugar and other flavors))  Have fun, eat healthier and better tasting, and save money by picking your own locally grown fruit and vegetables, and then using our easy canning and freezing directions

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How to Start a Pick-Your-Own Operation

There are quite a few farmers that want to convert to a PYO operation and hobbyists who would like to start one from scratch.  Here are some resources to help understand what is required, from both a business and technical aspect. And don't forget that your local county extension agent is your free resource to help you locally!  See this page for the contact information to find your county agent!:

Farmers often consider converting to a pick-your-own (PYO) because there is reduced labor required for harvesting, PYO's sell produce that is too fragile to ship, and most of the post-harvesting tasks (sorting the produce, storage, packaging, shipping) are eliminated. There are disadvantages, too, however: PYOs generally require long working hours and more liability insurance, the location of the farm must be reasonably close to population centers, and there must be room for parking and traffic.

PYO's grew rapidly through the 1980s.  This is commonly seen in "down" econmies when money is tight. Typically, when the economy is good, as it had been during most of the 1990s, PYO sales drop  This may have changed as consumers have recently begun to realize that processed and prepackaged foods are often treated with more chemicals, preservatives and pesticides.  But still, PYO's requires more of a time commitment, and freshly picked produce is less "convenient" than pre-packaged, pre-cut food (like lettuce mixes at the supermarket).

The biggest variable in PYO sales is weather. Most PYO business occurs on the weekends in late spring and fall. If rain keeps customers away during part of those weekends, nearly all of the sales will occur in just a few days. For that reason, few farmers rely solely on PYO to sell their produce.

There are certain key attributes that every successful PYO farm should have:

  • A dedicated phone with an answering machine that gives price, conditions & hours for the farm;
  • Open on weekends and summer holidays
  • Accommodations and provisions for children, since many parents want this as a family activity;
  • Ample parking, good roads that won't intimidate someone used to driving only on city roads, and clean trails;
  • Containers (even if customers are supposed to bring their own);
  • Good signs that tell rules, prices, hours, etc.;
  • Courteous, knowledgeable employees;
  • Wide, clean rows and weed-free fields;
  • Free drinking water (and it's smart to also sell juices, cold sodas and ice cream bars);
  • Lots of shade;
  • Access to clean restrooms;
  • A variety of produce that will keep customers coming back all season long.
The farmer must be prepared to sell himself as well as his business, so image is all-important. People want to see an attractive facility - neat and clean and staff that also look neat and clean! Location and appearance are the most important aspects of farm, not necessarily price.

Even though most of the produce will be harvested by the consumer, some will have to be picked by the grower, so labor costs are not completely eliminated. Also remember that not everyone will want to pick his own produce, so some already-picked items should be on-hand.


Marketing and Advertising 

A PYO grower must continually advertise and promote the farm. The best form of advertising is word-of-mouth, and the second-best is road signs. And these days, the internet is the very first place many people go to locate a business - add your site to a highly ranked specialty site ( that means www.pickyourown.org ! :-) . Other good advertising avenues include newspapers (not classifieds), PYO directories published by state Cooperative Extension offices, and direct mailings. Radio is not effective, except for special events. Billboards are not effective and television ads are usually cost-prohibitive 

Other places to advertise include County fairs or craft shows. Contests for various amounts of free produce can be a way to develop a mailing list. Many local papers and television stations are interested in human interest or new business stories in the area. Invite elementary schoolchildren to the farm for field trips.

Remember, return customers are the key to success. Eighty percent of your business comes from 20% of your customers, and it takes five times as many resources to get a new customer as it does to keep an old one.


Crops

Choosing what to plant is an important decision. Fruits seem to sell better than vegetables, and early- and late-season crops are best. Sometimes, unusual crops like asparagus and cut flowers sell well.

Long season and early season crops can be ideal for PYO operations, especially if there are a large number of operations in the area. Producers can provide several varieties of one crop to diversify their operations and encourage greater varieties of customers and increase customer satisfaction. If there are any specific ethnic groups in the area, otherwise exotic crops can increase sales, especially if a producer can develop a reputation as a source of the desired produce.

It�s hard to know how much to plant, and each operation will vary. Farms 30 miles away from a town with a population of 30,000 or more may have difficulty attracting customers, as will a farm 50 miles away from a city of 100,000. Most PYO operations should start small. Studies of Illinois strawberry farms show that about 400 customers are needed to clear an acre of strawberries with a 10,000 pound yield, and that pickers buy an average of a little more than 20 pounds of berries on each visit to a farm 


Facilities

Every PYO needs a parking lot and a checkout stand. A general rule for parking lot space is that 20 cars may be parked at a sixty degree angle, or 30 cars at a 90 degree angle, in a 1000 square foot area. The checkout stand should be placed so that it can be seen from the parking lot and will serve as the hub of business transactions. This is also the place to have tie-in items, like recipes, drinks, baked goods, crafts, and gift certificates.

Optional facilities can increase the customer services that the PYO operation provides and also increase the goodwill of the firm. The facilities could help differentiate one PYO from another and increase the competitive edge. Some such facilities are play areas for children, designated picking areas for children, and picnic tables.


Pricing

Growers near cities usually charge more than those in rural areas where the average income may be lower and more residents have gardens and orchards. Some growers charge half the retail price, others charge slightly over the wholesale market price. In arriving at a price, don�t ignore marketing costs. One grower estimated that PYO expenses are about 5-8 cents per quart of strawberries that would cost him 15-20 cents per quart if he hired pickers 

The simplest method for calculating prices is to sell by volume. Pricing by weight, however, can eliminate the problem of containers being over-filled by consumers, but this system requires more time and labor. Count pricing may also work for some large items. The price per item should be rounded to the nearest nickel or dime to make pricing easier for everyone.


Funding

If you are looking for funds, investments, I.e., money, to start your farm or agri-entertainment operation, see this page about funding a farm.


Liability

Producers increase their liability by inviting the public to come on their property to pick produce. Generally, producers should be concerned about the safety of children and older people who are more likely to be involved in an accident. Most insurance companies will request that producers take measures to ensure customer safety and reduce their level of liability, doing things like putting away ladders, keeping chemicals locked up, and keeping animals penned up and out of the way.

For more information, see this page about liability and then check out this article at www.agriculture.com and this article.


Features

Some farms that offer PYO or have farmstands go on to consider entertainment farming. Agri-entertainment takes many forms: festivals, hayrides, petting zoos, seasonal events, and contests have all been used successfully. Most growers get into agri-entertainment slowly, and they often have a single creative idea that puts them ahead of the crowd.

Festivals and events might include things like:

  • Easter egg hunts
  • Perennial tours
  • Educational tours and seminars (open classes and school trips)
  • A corn maze at Halloween
  • Halloween costume contests and haunted houses
  • A moonlight pumpkin-picking party
  • An annual Farm Fest
  • A Petting zoo 

Want more information? 

These free guides may help you!


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Picking Tips

[General picking tips and a guide to each fruit and vegetable] [How much do I need to pick? (Yields - how much raw makes how much cooked or frozen)] [Selecting the right varieties to pick] [All about apple varieties - which to pick and why!]  [Picking tips for Vegetables] [ Strawberry picking tips] [ Blueberries picking tips]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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