This month's notes: December 2023: Harvested local apples are still available at farmers and farmer's markets! And of course, you can cut your own Christmas tree, get one already cut or get a libing one to plant after Christmas - see this page.  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

The History and Evolution of Pick-Your-Own Farms

PYO's have been around for years.  Clearly, the modern form of PYO farms goes back to a novelty in the Victorian era and the a resurgence in the 1950's.  It could be srgued that they trace their roots to medieval times and sharecropping. 

It's difficult to find anything from an authoritative source about the origins of pick-your-own (PYO) or U-pick farming. When I lived in England, I was told that Victorian market growers near London in the 19th century advertised  country outings to their fields in the countryside, so city dwellers could go to pick vegetables and have a home-cooked farm meal.

Verbal history in the northeast of the U.S. claims that U-pick operations have existed since the early 19th century, when apple growers in New Jersey and New York advertised country outings of picking and picnicking among the fruit trees. This apparently grew during the baby boom of the 1950's  with roadside fruit stands allowing customers to pick their own fruit.

More organized operations followed, with blackberries, blueberries and strawberries joining apples as the most common pick-your-own produce.

Another practice that may have simultaneously contributed to the growth of U-pick farming was "gleaning". Some farmers started charging suburban dwellers for access to go out into the farm's fields after the main harvest was finished. It was a win-win, as the farmer earned income for crops that would not have been otherwise harvested, and these "gleaners" could buy large quantities of fresh produce for very low prices.  This aspect of U-pick farming apparently died down in the 1960s, when understanding of risks of exposures to field pesticides became known.

The 1980's saw the start of the current book in PYO operations, as more people became concerned about having access to fresher, less processed food. More recent issues with "green" issues of buying locally grown foods, safety of the food supply system and many news stories of the dangers and lack of controls of foreign crops has added renewed growth.

PYO farming is definitely growing again, but there are always some closures. The majority of recent closures of pick-your-own farms are related to 3 issues:

1.     Aging farmers dying or retiring without a successor in the next generation interested in following their footsteps,

2.    Farms close to large metropolitan centers being overtaken by growth and finding the profits in selling the land for development to be irresistible and/or

3.    Liability issues, particularly for very small operations.

The closures are overwhelmingly smaller operations.  Larger operations understand how to transition from traditional farming to the new form of agri-entertainment or agri-tourism do very well.

And for each operation that closes, a new one is coming on board, and many existing pyo farms are expanding.

Crops that are especially suited for PYO marketing are those that require little expertise to harvest, but demand considerable harvest labor per acre. These include:

  • berries (strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, raspberries),
  • vegetables - particularly tomatoes, beans
  • flowers - mostly day lilies, lavender,
  • pumpkins and
  • Christmas trees

The latter 3 are fairly new phenomena. Growers have found success that the "U-Cut" flowers approach eliminates the considerable harvest labor requirement. Choose-and-cut Christmas trees have long been around for ages but are now being combined with hayrides, sleigh rides, and entertainment (music and food) by more savvy operators. Pumpkin patches and corn mazes are seeing an unprecedented growth. These are particularly high profit operations.

The success of any of these can be attributed to marketing, location, liability and labor. The issue of what makes for a successful PYO operation is another topic. 

If you have any comments, feedback or information to add, please write me!