by Sally Colby

Perhaps no one truly knows when the ‘everything pumpkin’ craze began, but it’s become tradition for consumers to seek pumpkin flavors, designs and decorations not long after children are back in school. While selecting the perfect, traditional orange fruit is often the highlight of a family’s visit to your farm, fall isn’t just about pumpkins. For many families, a chance to pick apples, tackle a corn maze or simply enjoy the tranquility of a farm is enough reason for a visit.

Whether your farm offers vegetables and fruit through summer then transitions to pumpkins and Christmas trees toward the end of the season or opens for just a short time for a dedicated fall event, planning the marketing aspect of the fall and Halloween season is the key to a successful season.

First, make sure your business is easy to find, especially if you’re only open for a limited time in fall. Make sure your address is GPS-friendly, and if you’re in a difficult-to-find location, provide additional information on your website and social media. Be sure to clearly designate customer entrances and parking and have trained staff to monitor and guide customers as they arrive. Parking lots should be paved and well-maintained, with ample handicapped parking spaces available. Be prepared to assist customers who may have special needs and consider engaging new employees in a practice run of opening day.

First impressions are important to customers as they arrive and set the stage for their time spent on the farm. Customers who see a nicely landscaped property that celebrates the season will be more likely to be satisfied with the rest of their experience. Make sure employees are easy to find, perhaps with customized t-shirts, and able to either answer questions or direct customers to the right person.

If your farm is open throughout summer for produce sales, it isn’t too early to start letting customers know what you offer in fall. Many customers look forward to the fall and Halloween season, so it’s easy to get them to return if they know what you offer. Signage placed in U-pick vegetable or berry fields indicating when pumpkins and apples will be available help establish a potential return visit.

Since pumpkins are often the highlight of the fall farm visit, be sure to think through the plan for marketing those. Some farms cut pumpkins and gourds and sell them directly from the field, which means supervision by trained staff, a plan about how you’re going to charge for pumpkins and how and where customers will pay.

Other farms harvest pumpkins ahead of time and place them in a staged location that’s closer to parking and other attractions. When possible, pumpkins should be washed prior to sale for better customer appeal. The process of washing allows you to sort as you go and weed out fruits with bad spots or poor handles.

Fall weather conditions can lead to muddy field conditions, so be sure customers can select pumpkins without having to get their shoes dirty. If your pumpkins and gourds are in the field, plan ahead for an alternate staging area for pumpkins such as a lawn or paved area.

When it comes to pricing, be aware of competitors’ prices, but also consider other features you plan to offer. Sometimes choosing a single pumpkin is part of an all-inclusive price, and in that case, pricing isn’t an issue. Individual pumpkins can be sold in many ways, including size, type or weight. Make sure there’s plenty of clear signage that explains pricing and be prepared to answer questions about prices.

As with any produce, marketing is an ongoing process. Keep perishable displays clean and cool as much as possible and remove fruits that are starting to decompose. If you’re growing pumpkins with a wide variety of colors and sizes, create an eye-catching display and always keep it well-stocked. Apples often sell better with signage that includes facts about flavor, uses, storage and even a bit of history.

Wagon rides around the farm or to the orchard or pumpkin field are popular and should include a narrator who can talk about the farm, how crops are grown or even local history during the trip. Consumers who visit farms are interested in learning about agriculture and they’ll find the most menial facts interesting.

If your farm doesn’t serve food, work with local food trucks and consider creating special events around what they offer. Choose a variety of cuisines and provide selections for a variety of tastes over a period of time, even if the food truck is present just one or two evenings a week. Make sure you advertise the food trucks’ presence and post a schedule on your website and social media to draw maximum numbers.

The role of social media is critical for nearly every business today, especially for farms that have seasonal offerings. Be sure to create a strong presence on at least several social media platforms, whether it’s Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Google+ or Pinterest. Use social media to announce hours and upcoming special events and be sure to include plenty of photos. Customers who can watch a corn maze grow taller or the progress of apples as they ripen become more involved and invested in your farm.

Having a website is essential, but only if you intend to keep it current. Customers who visit a website that lists last season’s events aren’t as likely to pursue your farm or orchard. Websites should be optimized for search engine returns and easy to navigate. It usually pays to hire a professional to create and maintain a fluid website.

If you have an email list, a regular newsletter can keep customers in the loop about what’s happening on the farm. Provide an option on your website for customers to sign up for emails. Be careful to not inundate customers with too many emails — a monthly email is usually enough, especially if you’re following through on social media.

Consider creating a YouTube channel to promote your farm or orchard and provide links through the farm website and social media. A video can take potential customers on a short trip through your farm or orchard and show them what it takes to care for growing crops throughout the season. Short clips of planting, the ripening process, fruit thinning and scouting may seem mundane to you as the grower, but are interesting to customers.

Well-trained staff throughout the property are a critical aspect of marketing, especially when many visitors will be families with children. Provide good support for your staff, including good initial training. Make sure everyone on the staff realizes the importance of their role and that they’re at the forefront and are spokespeople for the farm. Offer ongoing training for staff, especially if problems have been identified and policies changed.

Remember that everything you offer, from smiles to your products, is active marketing and will strongly influence customers’ decisions to return.