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Keys to a successful pick your own farm

Thinking of adding pick your own to your farming operation? Check out this primer!

By AMY HOGUE

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Highly popular in the ‘70s and ‘80s, Pick Your Own (PYO) farms are making a serious come-back in Canada, surging alongside the local food movements and other farm direct marketing endeavours. The concept of farm direct marketing can be found in many forms in Canada, ranging from Pick Your Own (or U-Pick) to Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), Agritourism and Farmers’ Markets.

Virginia Schwarzenbach, a Membership Services, Communications and Marketing representative from the North American Farm Direct Marketing Association (NAFDMA), explained that the addition of some form of PYO farming can complement other types of farm direct marketing already in use on a farm.

“Pick your own farming intertwines with what farmers are already doing to make their farm more publicly accessible,” Virginia said, “That kind of diversification really does help farms be connected to the community.”

PYO farms offer a win-win scenario for both farmers and customers.

The customer wins by reducing their costs and enjoying the flavour and health benefits of freshly picked produce, while the farmer wins by literally having the customer do the work for them. Financially, PYO is an ideal choice for small farms; it reduces labour costs while broadening the customer base and diversifying income.

On the downside, PYOs require the farmer or other staff to be on hand to serve customers while also instigating more regulations, additional farm insurance and other liabilities. Despite the negatives, PYO can be an enticing option for many farmers. If you like interacting with people and want to expand your farm, PYO could be a farm direct marketing choice for you.

The three l’s: location, layout & looks

Although it may seem cliché, the location of a PYO farm can be just as critical as for any business and finding the perfect PYO farm location can be challenging. For PYO farms, proximity to an urban or sub-urban area is crucial to ensuring a broad enough customer base to support the endeavour. You want to be close — but not too close!

Farms too close to urban centres may eventually find their livelihood challenged by urban sprawl, while those too far away may find rising fuel costs are keeping their customers shopping closer to home. A good location would be roughly one half hour to an hour’s drive from an urban or suburban center.

PYO farms can technically be of any size, ranging from only a few acres to a few hundred acres, but close attention must be given to ensure a potential PYO location has ample space for parking, washroom facilities, outdoor sitting areas (if you will be offering this service), and sales sheds. A good rule of thumb for parking is that 20 to 30 cars can be parked in a 1000 square foot area, with approximately four to six spaces for every acre of PYO production. (Local regulations for parking may apply, depending on your region.)

Your sales shed is one of the most important points on your layout;

it should be located between the parking and picking areas. This will help give customers a visual base for how to proceed with picking and also discourage those who think the produce is “free.”

The appearance of a PYO farm is very important for customers, and PYO farms must go beyond the typical conditions of a working farm;

an emphasis on cleanliness and aesthetics is critical on a PYO. A PYO farmer must provide wide, clean, predominantly weed-free rows from which customers will pick. Customers will want to enjoy the “farming” experience without the realities of farm life that include manure, weeds, fertilizers and mud.

Additional regulations & liability risks

PYO farms are subject to the same national, provincial and regional regulations as any farming business and these regulations may vary depending on the province and region in question.

Depending on your region, some of these regulations could include providing washroom and hand-washing facilities for customers and staff. Other applicable regulations can apply to the type and size of containers provided to customers for picking and the scales you use to weigh and measure picked produce.

When exploring the possibility of PYO farming, consideration should be given to whether or not the farm will be moving beyond basic farming activities into secondary activities such as retail or agritourism. This could result in a different tax assessment for a farm, and municipal or township by-laws could apply to a change of use.

Beyond regulations, PYO farmers also need to consider insurance implications; insurance can be one of the biggest deterrents for farmers considering entering into the PYO arena. As soon as customers begin wandering around a farm, the risks of a liability claim increases and standard farm insurance may no longer be sufficient. Farm liability insurance covers anything that occurs as part of normal farm practices, while commercial liability insurance is designed to cover other activities such as agritourism entertainment activities. A PYO farm may need a combined farm/commercial insurance policy to provide adequate liability coverage.

Susan Baker, Manager of Insurance Services, Ontario Mutual Insurance Association (OMIA), offers the following advice to prospective PYO farmers:? “My best advice to the public is to sit down with their insurance agent or broker and have a full and frank conversation with them,” Baker explained. “Every insurance policy is unique and a broker would understand the coverage a person already has and if they need additional coverage.”

Some of the information you may want to have on hand before approaching your insurance broker would include the amount of land to be used for public access, the types of activities you are planning and any additional equipment you plan on installing such as a playground or picnic area.

Marketing success

Marketing a PYO can be different from marketing another type of farm. Unlike traditional farmers, a PYO farmer is literally marketing the harvesting experience to his/her customers.

The best form of marketing — and the cheapest — for a PYO farmer is word of mouth. It’s for this reason that most PYOs are often operated in tandem with membership in one or more local farmers’ markets or a roadside stand. The farmers’ market or roadside stand provides the farmer with the opportunity to market directly to customers who have already displayed an interest in their produce. Once a customer visits the farm and makes purchases, the farmer is reliant on the customer’s impression of their farm and their willingness to spread the word among family and friends.

Signage is also an important tool for a PYO farmer. Visitors to a PYO farm may be unaccustomed to driving on country roads and need frequent, large and legible signage to direct them to your farm. Signs should list the crops available at your farm with the capacity to indicate when they are in season.

Picking words of wisdom

Andy and Cindy Terauds own Acorn Creek Garden Farm, a 100 acre farm direct enterprise located in Carp, Ontario. The Terauds offer PYO as an option on their farm and grow more than 600 varieties of fruits and vegetables to sell at three farmers’ markets and 25 local restaurants.

Andy explained how he learned a valuable lesson about maintaining market diversity and relying on a single customer base. In the 1980s, his customer base was predominantly of Lebanese descent, and as a result he modified his operation to suit the needs of these customers. This backfired when five Lebanese-owned farms opened nearby, cutting dramatically into the Terauds’ market. “We learned a lesson about diversification,” Andy said.

Saundra and John Vandenberg, and their son, Matt, of Rideau Pines Farm, have owned and operated a PYO farm in Eastern Ontario for more than 30 years. The Vandenbergs grow more than 230 varieties of vegetables and sell to 15 restaurants and two farmers’ markets in addition to farm stand and PYO sales. Their farm is located roughly a half hour from central Ottawa, making it the perfect distance from an urban centre.

Matt explained that, as with the Terauds’, the Vandenberg’s largest market for PYO is customers from an Eastern European, Bosnian, Croatian or Russian background and they grow varieties of produce to appeal directly to those markets.

“Eastern Europeans do a lot of preserving,”Matt stressed, “We fill a niche for that market.”

At the Rideau Pines Farm location, Matt said he has seen a surge in PYO sales over the last 6 or 7 years, crediting it to the “buy local” drive and the increased awareness of where a customer’s food comes from.? Matt estimates that 70 per cent of his sales come from farm gate and PYO sales with the remainder split fairly evenly between farmers’ markets and restaurant sales.

The Vandenberg’s experience is that PYO sales complements their other markets and is an integral part of their farm direct marketing enterprise.? “We’ve always relied on PYO,” Matt said with a laugh. “The customers are doing the work for us.”

Do’s & don’ts

  • Do prepare a partial production budget to compare profitability from farmer-harvested to PYO produce. This will help in making decisions about PYO farming.
  • Do register your PYO farm with provincial or regional organizations promoting direct farm marketing activities.
  • Don’t neglect to create and maintain an informative website. Customers need to be able to find you easily online and in person.
  • Don’t neglect to ensure special areas, individual events and agritourism activities are listed separately so they will be covered in your insurance policy.

The agritourism debate

Some farmers feel that the current trend towards including agritourism on PYO farms detracts from the fundamental nature of farming, turning a viable farm into little more than a tourist destination.

Others feel that providing some form of agritourism is an obvious means of attracting more customers to their farm and should be utilized to its full potential.

How much, or how little, a farmer chooses to incorporate agritourism into their PYO enterprise is a personal decision dependant on a variety of factors, including insurance ramifications, local by-laws and personal preference.

Farmers interested in agritourism need to consider how far they want to prioritize the agritourism component of their farm. If agritourism becomes the main focus of the farm then clearly the farm moves from being a “working farm” to a tourist site. This could affect whether or not income derived from agritourism qualifies as farming income.? The inclusion of family-oriented activities such as a playground or offering ice cream cones or beverages to customers can make good marketing sense. The key is to keep the focus on the farm, not the attractions.

For More Information:

North American Farm Direct Marketing Association: http://nafdma.com/

Marketing on the Edge: A Marketing Guide for Progressive Farmers (produced by NAFDMA and available on their website) http://pickyourown.org/howtostartapyo.htm?

Alberta Factsheet: Farm Direct Marketing for Rural Producers: http://www1.agric.gov.ab.ca/$department/deptdocs.nsf/all/agdex3482