by Sally Colby
When it comes to marketing, fruit and vegetable farms have numerous options. For one Maryland farm, u-pick is the best choice. Larry and Polly Moore established Larriland Farm in 1973, and today, three of their four children have taken over operations at the 300-acre farm in Woodbine.
Lynn, president of Larriland Farm, says the farm started when the family planted an acre of strawberries in the 1970s. Today, the farm includes tree fruits, small fruits and vegetables. An old bank barn has been converted to a modern farm market, but the majority of what is produced on the farm is sold directly from the field. The farm includes 20 acres of apples, 20 acres of peaches, 10 acres of strawberries and 10 acres of bramble fruits. Additional acreage is devoted to vegetables and pumpkins.
The Moores say when the ‘buy local’ craze hit in the mid 1990s, business skyrocketed. Although numerous customers visit the farm each day it’s open, the Moores put a lot of time and effort into ensuring a positive visit for every customer.
Larriland Farm’s proximity to Washington D.C. brings customers of many ethnicities. Lynn says that Larriland Farm has one of the largest gooseberry and currant plantings in the state, which appeals to Eastern European customers.
Larriland Farm can’t keep up with the demand for blueberries, but the crop has been challenging to grow. “They come in between strawberries and peaches,” said Lynn. “It’s an important harvest time for us. The customers start coming for strawberries, and continue to come for blueberries, so we really need to grow blueberries. Blueberries and raspberries are about the only thing that ripen at that time of year.”
Prior to establishing blueberry fields in the predominantly clay soil, the Moores conducted extensive soil tests and examined soil structure, and selected a field that seemed to be suitable for blueberries. “About 20 percent clay seems to be about where we can be and still grow blueberries,” said Lynn. “We planted Reka, Bluecrop, Legacy, Draper, Blueray and several other new varieties.” Some of those varieties are still under testing, and while many the plants are thriving, other areas have been replanted several times in an effort to establish a good stand. Since it’s unclear as to why the plants aren’t thriving, Dr. Chris Walsh, Maryland Cooperative Extension, is going to collect some soil from the farm and plant blueberry plants in a lab setting to determine whether the issue is variety, soil preparation, pH, soluble salts, or perhaps manganese release due to lowered pH.
Lynn’s brothers, Guy and Fenby, also manage daily farm operations. Fenby noted that blueberries are a fairly new crop at Larriland Farm and can be a challenging crop in the mid-Atlantic region. “We currently have 4.5 acres devoted to blueberries, and I’m hoping to double that as quickly as possible,” he said. “We probably have to triple it to meet customers’ needs. The trick is to find a commercially viable variety that will survive in our soils. We start planting test varieties, then pay attention to how they do, then check yields. If we find one that has acceptable yields and does well, then we have a viable variety. Reka is the main one we’re hoping will work out well. The plants aren’t old enough to fruit yet – we’ve been stripping the blossoms – but I’m hoping to get a first crop next year. The other variety we’re interested in is New Hanover.”
Fenby noted that while 200 acres of the farm is devoted to growing crops, 100 acres is in water resources, woodland, parking and roadways. “It’s a trade-off,” said Fenby. “You can have central parking, central checkout and customer transportation for a pick-your-own operation. Or you can maintain roads and parking lots, and let customers drive themselves to the fields. Then you have to have good signage, and it requires more people to direct cars to parking lots for each crop. Transporting customers would free up more crop acreage, but that would require competent operators, additional tractors and wagons.”
As crops are ready for harvest, portable wagons are moved to each field. There are wireless credit card terminals on each wagon, with solar power to run electronic scales and the cash register. There are no cash boxes in the field. Fenby estimates that about 75 percent of customers are using credit cards and he hopes that that figure rises.
Many customers like to pick their own vegetables, but Fenby says the practice isn’t as popular as it once was. “We’re at the mercy of customer preference, and we grow a lot fewer vegetables than we did 30 years ago,” he said. “There are some vegetables that people are still willing to prepare, and that’s what I’ll grow.” Fenby says with two-income families being the norm today, prep time for dinner is limited and families want something that’s quick and easy. “Any vegetables that can be eaten raw or in a salad, and if they can prepare it quickly and it tastes good, it sells,” said Fenby. “Our mainstay vegetables are spinach, beets and tomatoes. We also sell some turnips, chard and radishes; and broccoli and cauliflower in fall.”
Larriland Farms recently added 1,500 apple trees to their existing apple orchard, and plan to add more in spring of 2017. “Most growers who are converting to high density systems are either wholesale operations or combination wholesale/retail,” said Fenby. “In the wholesale business, where you get less money for the product, yield becomes much more critical. We’re committed to pick-your-own here – I sell direct to the consumer and get the full price for the product, so can survive with less yield. While a lot of growers are creating a 10’ or 14’ trellis system, I have a 7’ trellis system because I want a pedestrian apple orchard. There are no ladders in the orchard – everything can be reached from the ground.”
Since the main farm is essentially in full production, pumpkins are grown on recently purchased acreage close to the main farm. “We put up signs to direct customers to that property,” said Fenby. “It’s only about a mile from the main field and it’s on the same road. Our customers picked up on that very quickly.”
Larriland grows about three acres of pie pumpkins for school tours and customers who use them for cooking, and additional acreage is devoted to several traditional jack-o-lantern varieties. On the main farm, fall visitors enjoy a straw maze, a boo barn and decorated hayride through the farm. On weekends, a food vendor sets up and prepares a variety of menu choices for visitors.
The farm’s website includes daily picking information along with tips on how to pick certain fruits and vegetables. This information is vital for consumers who aren’t familiar with how vegetables are grown and how they look when they’re ready to pick. The website also provides a harvest forecast so that customers can plan ahead.
“We can’t keep up,” said Lynn. “We keep planting more every year.”
Visit Larriland Farm online at www.pickyourown.com .
Perfecting the art of u-pick
by Sally Colby