Anyone who has travelled in New Jersey is familiar with numerous roadside stands overflowing with fresh produce. Although visitors might see Alstede Farms among the choices, the home base of this Chester, NJ, farm is an attraction in itself.

The farm was founded by first generation farmer Kurt Alstede in 1982. Today, numerous family members have taken on roles throughout the farm as it expanded from sales at its roadside stand to an on-farm store and several additional off-site locations.

Kyle Holman has been handling marketing for Alstede Farms for just over three years. Although Holman’s background is in sports, he’s found many similarities between his former career and the farm, especially the agritourism aspect.

Last year marked the 40th anniversary of Alstede Farms. “Kurt started the business with a small roadside stand,” said Holman, describing the farm founder and owner. “The current farm store was built in the early 1990s.”

The 600-acre farm is preserved, and the Alstede family is dedicated to soil and water stewardship. The entire farm is managed sustainably with special attention to pesticide and water use, and a portion of the farm is managed under USDA Certified Organic.

Several years ago, the Alstedes added an outdoor pavilion to the market, which created an area adjacent to the farm store for produce sales in an open-air setting. An ice cream stand was also added, which Holman said is one more way to incorporate the food grown on the farm.

The heart of Alstede Farms is the wide variety of produce, which Holman said far exceeds the selection at local grocery stores. Although not all customers take advantage of the experience, Holman believes the U-pick option on the farm helps consumers connect with food. While grocery stores have done a good job improving produce quality and marketing, Holman thinks it’s important to be continually mindful of those efforts and to make sure Alstede Farms’ produce is always higher quality.

“One of the challenges we have is discussing how to eat in season,” said Holman. “When you go to a grocery store, you can get strawberries 365 days a year, and that isn’t the way things grow here in New Jersey. That’s where the CSA comes in – it’s a great tool to help people learn how to eat seasonally.”

Customers who sign up for the farm’s CSA are treated to fresh, seasonal produce through a variety of options. CSA selections include 10-, 20- or 31-week shares, or a four-week holiday harvest share. The full share includes about 25 to 30 pounds of produce weekly, while the personal share averages eight to 10 pounds of produce.

To ensure customers are satisfied with what they receive in a share, Alstede Farms allows customers to select preferences, add or swap items or remove items from their weekly box. Customers can pack their own box on the farm or pick it up when it’s ready. CSA customers also have access to other local, seasonal products including fresh-pressed cider, cranberries, turkeys and Christmas trees.

The farm was founded by first generation farmer Kurt Alstede in 1982. Today, numerous family members have taken on roles throughout the farm. Photo courtesy of Alstede Farms

One of the most popular features of Alstede Farms is the U-pick option. The farm’s website provides a visual schedule of what’s available throughout the growing season, including an estimated range of ripening dates and availability.

The U-pick aspect of a farm can be challenging, especially when the produce isn’t the same as what the consumer would find at the grocery store, and when consumers aren’t familiar with basic harvest practices.

“We come up with videos for social media,” said Holman. “We have a YouTube channel and send out emails.” A newsletter for CSA members includes recipes as well as storage and prep tips for vegetables in season.

Many customers’ initial visit to Alstede Farms is for strawberries, and guests are eager to pick as soon as the first fruit of the season is ready. Customers are encouraged to seek large, bright red strawberries, and signage in the fields shows what a ripe strawberry looks like.

From July through October, U-pick customers enjoy filling baskets with a variety of peppers. Plump, flavorful Jersey tomatoes are another popular U-pick option and are available through October.

Apples start to ripen at the end of July and early August, with Lodi, Pristine®, Red Free, Ginger Gold and Paula Red as first options. Mid- and later season apples include Zestar!®, Sansa, Rambo, Gala, Daybreak Fuji, Honeycrisp, Liberty, Jonagold and Empire. End of season customers can pick Rome Beauty, Stayman, Enterprise, GoldRush, Winesap and Pink Lady®.

“We like to talk about peaches here too,” said Holman. “Sometimes New Jersey beats Georgia in peach production. Every year is different, but we grow a fair share of peaches, blueberries and apples.” Since peaches in the grocery store are usually hard and not ready to eat, Alstede Farms helps customers learn how to select the right ones.

Most consumers associate apples with the end of summer and autumn, but Holman said people are ready for apples in August. “People see back to school ads and start looking for apples,” he said. “When the weather turns to cool, crisp days in August, people start getting a feeling for fall.”

Because apple ripening also signals autumn activities, social media becomes an important aspect of seasonal marketing. Alstede Farms is known for several fall activities including apple and pumpkin picking, a corn maze and hay wagon rides. “Those are the quintessential fall activities,” said Holman.

Numerous school tours hosted by the farm in autumn include an educational component. Holman said each school’s visit depends on what the teacher wants to provide.

As the growing season slows down, the Blooming Giants Sunflower Trail is a big draw and includes a photo contest and several special events while sunflowers are at peak bloom. The farm’s corn maze is also popular, and a nighttime Harvest Moon Hayride challenges guests who want to traverse the maze by flashlight or pick pumpkins and enjoy a bonfire. The Evergreen Adventure Maze is popular, especially among children, in spring for the season’s first guests.

Holman believes the biggest marketing challenge for a farm is encouraging consumers to look at the farm the same way they view their local butcher or baker.

“There are a lot of people who will travel a long way to go to their favorite butcher for meat and their favorite bakery for breads and sweets,” said Holman. “The challenge is to be on the same level where consumers hold produce in the same high regard.”

by Sally Colby