by Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

A farmer may grow the biggest, reddest berries around on their U-pick farm, but without marketing, it won’t matter. Marketing is essential to a successful U-pick operation. This begins with understanding the target market, according to Eve Kaplan-Walbrecht, owner of Garden of Eve Organic Farm & Market in Riverhead, NY. She presented “Growing, Maintaining and Marketing a Successful Organic U-Pick Berry Operation” as part of the virtual NOFA-NY 2022 conference.

“You have to pay attention to why people want berries,” Kaplan-Walbrecht said. For example, people who want to enjoy a fun family outing may want other things to do at the farm and know whether the site has restrooms and food for sale. People who want berries to process may want to know about bulk pricing and if they can bring their own containers to save money.

Kaplan-Walbrecht advised developing an automated phone message with directions, the farm address, hours, basic picking directions and harvest information. This information must be kept up to date. “I can have a staff person who’s checking the fields and updating our message every day,” she said.

Picking berries offers a family outing for many people who stop by their local berry patch. Photo by Deborah J. Sergeant

Updating the farm’s social media page also helps get the word out if soggy fields or other conditions prevent U-pick. Staying current online is crucial. If hours or prices change, people need to know before they leave home. Claiming a Google My Business listing can help ensure accurate information, including the farm location on Google Maps.

Kaplan-Walbrecht hired someone to manage her online presence. “You want to be posting once the berries are about to come in,” she said. She uses Buffer, an app to distribute her post to multiple social media platforms at once.

Social media enables customers to help with marketing too. “People who come here post to Instagram,” she said. “Once they tag your business in that photo, you have the legal right to use it. We love their photos … Their photos are better than what I could take. They’re so much more authentic. People want to see people enjoy being on the farm. They’re doing your advertising for you.”

This should encourage berry farmers to provide a picturesque setting. An aptly placed bench or chair with a scenic background and a farm sign may increase the chances of pretty promotional photos.

The farm limits the number of pickers because the farm cannot grow enough. Some seasons, the Kaplan-Walbrechts use smaller-sized containers to limit the amount each person picks. Since the demand for U-pick is so high in the area, Garden of Eve charges an admission fee, plus the price of containers and the berries. “It improves your bottom line,” Kaplan-Walbrecht said. “It’s not something that you have a labor cost for. It depends on what else is available in your area and the demographics in your area.”

It also makes a difference that they offer agritourism activities. “We were purists for a while, as there were other farms doing agritourism,” she said. “But it is a great way to get people outside. People really do love learning about farming. If a kid leaves knowing the difference between a sheep and a goat and that strawberries don’t grow on trees, that’s a good thing.” Farms should make sure they have appropriate insurance for agritourism, however.

Kaplan-Walbrecht added that beginning with a $1 to $2 admission fee with a few inexpensive play items such as a sandbox, culvert for exploring or straw bale pyramid for climbing can make it easy to get into agritourism. “You can pull apart the straw for covering the fields,” she suggested.

Garden of Eve offers U-pick lavender, sunflowers and vegetables, all for the same admission, $7.95 on weekdays and $9.95 on weekends.

Adding a garden center has allowed the farm more selling options. It also taps into the upswing in people interested in gardening spurred by the pandemic and those with concerns about the economy and food safety. For those who don’t want to grow themselves, a CSA program provides a means for fresh food access and another revenue stream for the farm.

“People love fruit,” Kaplan-Walbrecht said. “You could have it in a regular share or a fruit share.” In addition to the initial revenue stream, the CSA also brings more people to the farm, which can lead to further purchases.