by Courtney Llewellyn

One of the easiest ways to bring more visitors to your farm and buying more of your produce is to let those visitors pick it themselves. U-pick operations allow customers to spend time with their families outdoors, learn more about where their food comes from and appreciate the work farmers put in to grow tasty, healthy foods.

But, as consumer behavior changes and demands something more than a basic package, farmers are needing to find new and different ways to draw visitors to their operations. Rows of pretty produce may not be enough anymore. Sharing what they’ve done to expand their U-pick operations at the most recent Great Lakes Expo, three farms discussed their “Unique U-picks.”

Blake Farms

Based in Armada, MI, Blake Farms comprises three retail farms (the main farm, Big Apple and Backyard) as well as a tasting room, a garden center and a farm store. In total, they grow about 30 different crops. Well known for their fruit and cider, that U-pick option does well on its own. Farmer Lonnie Decker noted with fruit, “once it’s gone, it’s gone.”

Their veggie U-picks are a little different. “We’ve always done a tomato and a pepper, but people who came to the farm wanted more,” Decker said. They started with eggplant to transition into other vegetables, then added cucumbers/pickles. “We wanted to do it differently and trellised them,” she said. “We also trellised sweet peas and people loved it. Trellising is a great thing for a U-pick.”

Grower Steven Campbell added, “Customers are very gentle with the beans.” They plant week after week to extend the season, with beans and sweet corn going in once a week for eight to 12 plantings. They tried root crops in 2021, and while it “wasn’t ideal,” Campbell said if a crop is out there, visitors will come to it. That allows Blake Farms to experiment.

That nonstop schedule is necessary, according to Blake Farms’ manager Brent Christianson, as they are open seven days a week during the season. They also need to be able to close sections if necessary to deal with disease or pest issues.

“In my first year of dealing with U-pick, I quickly learned what works and what doesn’t,” Christianson said. He offered these tips to those just joining the party: “When you think you have enough signage, double it. Keep it simple. And do your best and learn from each experience.” (Decked added that they are thinking of adding QR codes to their signage to offer the information in other languages.)

To make things easier for visitors, they also post a weekly report on their website with what’s available at each location. The cider mill is the busiest location, but people plan visits based on what they want to do, as there are different options at different locations.

As cut flowers have been so popular lately, Decker said they wanted to grow flowers that would rebloom, like zinnia, rudbeckia and dianthus. They had good sales – and it added color to the farm, which brought people in who wanted to take pictures. “We thought herbs would be a big smash but they weren’t being cut regularly,” she said. “If we do them again, we’ll do classes, make it a package deal.”

It’s not just the U-pick that draws in customers at Blake Farms. This is their greenhouse all spruced up for a special event. Photo courtesy of Elise Filliccia Photography

“It’s a unique management situation at Blake’s,” Christianson said, because of its size and variety. “You need a group of people who can roll with the flow – people who are familiar with both agricultural practices and customer service skills. Experience is important but work ethic and a desire to grow are also important.” They host 400 to 500 employees in October, their busiest month. He said it “takes an army to run everything.”

Decker said they pride themselves on the fact that they don’t charge visitors on the way in, which in turn doesn’t create traffic backup. They do, however, occasionally hear complaints about the $20 minimum they charge per car. “If they come out with nothing, that’s their issue, but we let people know up front,” she said, “but it’s hard to communicate that to some.”

“Sometimes we’re overly busy on weekends, and it can be hard to accommodate people,” Christianson added. “You just have to listen to your customers and adjust.”

Hooper’s Farm Gardens

On the opposite end of the spectrum are Terry and Bruce Hooper of Hooper’s Farm Gardens in Traverse City, MI. Terry explained that Bruce’s family farm was a third-generation operation, with a flower farm and cherry and apple orchards, which was downsized from 180 acres to just 1.5 acres and a small greenhouse.

“We got out of the farm market, and with my art degree I focused on designing [floral arrangements] for weddings, with a focus on local flowers,” Terry said. (Bruce has a background in horticulture and worked with Extension. His focus at their farm is on IPM, as it keeps costs down.) They’ve had their business for more than 30 years. Terry normally completes orders for four to eight weddings a weekend. They also grow a lot of herbs and use them as greens. Boxwood, lilac greens and hops are also cultivated for boutonnieres.

Hooper’s Farm Gardens is on the Traverse City Bike Path, so locals were already seeing them and supporting them. “COVID was a blessing in disguise,” Terry said. There were fewer weddings and more people outside for U-cut flowers. They posted signage for U-cut costs, and found that people tend to give more than they need to because they don’t want to count stems.

“My biggest complaint is that they don’t know how to cut flowers,” Bruce joked. Terry explained it’s a self-serve situation at their farm, adding that you can make a lot of money on an acre and a half without doing a lot of work. Visitors simply walk in, grab clippers and cut. The Hoopers offer a credit option for those who want it, but generally, cash is king.

The couple believe in philanthropic equity – in giving and being a part of their community to get their name out there. “For U-pick, it’s very important to get your name out there,” Terry said. “We never advertise for weddings, but they’re still 80% of our business.”

Despite the booming popularity of their U-cut flowers these past few seasons, Terry and Bruce have reached that age where they are trying to sell the farm to retire.

Sharing their experiences at the most recent Great Lakes Expo were (top row, L – R) Lonnie Decker, Brent Christianson and Steven Campbell of Blake Farms and (bottom row) Rachel Mifsud of Will Forage for Food and Terry Hooper of Hooper’s Farm Gardens. Photo by Courtney Llewellyn

Will Forage for Food

Going even smaller, Rachel Mifsud doesn’t even own a farm. She is the founder of Will Forage for Food, a Great Lakes region community of people who are interested in living from the land and passing on traditional knowledge. They host camps, classes and community events that teach people how to forage for sustenance year-round.

“I teach people how to forage, and I’ve been doing this for 10 years,” Mifsud said. She works with CSAs and U-pick operations, offering her services as an educational venture. Her classes are enjoyed by a wide variety of attendees, as lots of different people are interested in self-sufficiency.

“Classes get people to farms and buying produce,” she explained. “People can forage 1,000 different species. It’s a year-round thing but my ‘year’ starts when the maple sap starts running and slows down in November.”

Mifsud noted that foraging is different from farming because despite the weather, “something is thriving out there.” She also does something she’s dubbed “farmaging,” where she takes plants and mushrooms she finds, brings them home and plants them.

When Will Forage for Food works with a farm, the farm often promotes the event as an educational session. Mifsud said, “Most people don’t realize how much is out there” – and offering both carefully cultivated produce and items people can find on their own can be a perfect U-pick experience.