by Sally Colby
Pumpkins, gourds and everything else autumn will be the order of the day until Thanksgiving. But as soon as mums and corn stalks fade, Christmas tree farms that offer U-cut trees will become the center of attention.
Customers visit U-cut farms for a variety of reasons, but the goal of the tree farm should always be the same: to provide a pleasant and memorable experience for all who visit.
Whether those arriving at your farm are a young couple visiting for the first time or a family bringing their children and grandchildren, first impressions count. Make sure the parking area is easy to enter and navigate, with clear signage and adequate spaces for handicapped guests. If the parking lot is paved or gravel, fill any holes and repair other potential tripping points.
Farms that use portions of grassy fields for parking have a bit more work to ensure guests’ safety. Make sure the grass is neatly mowed, and watch for and correct potential hazards. In fields without lines, parking can quickly become confusing and dangerous, but hay bales with stakes and ropes can serve as boundaries. Whether parking is in a lot or a field, it’s helpful to designate several employees outfitted with safety vests to direct cars.
If traffic flow has been a problem in the past, consider a new design. Redesigning the farm entrance and exit may require permitting from the local municipality, so be sure to check that aspect prior to making changes. Look at the parking lot as a whole and determine the safest pattern for foot traffic, and whenever possible, provide the shortest route for guests to walk to the farm entrance to avoid the need to walk among moving cars in the parking area.
Many farms designate an outgoing staff person to act as a greeter, which sets the tone for a positive and personal experience. The greeter should be able to direct guests to all activities, including tree cutting. Although those who are good at greeting the public love what they do and seem to have no end to their energy, plan to have a relief greeter so everyone can take a break.
If you plan to offer food from an outside vendor, make sure the local food trucks are lined up with clear contracts about when they will be present at your location. Farms that offer hot chocolate or cider and light snacks in a gift shop or warm building should designate where guests should enjoy those items to avoid excess traffic and potential spills in busy areas.
Make sure any portable toilets or restrooms are fully functional and can handle a busy day. Follow a general rule of thumb as prescribed by the portable toilet company to determine how many should be on the premises.
The U-cut season will likely require additional help, so if your farm hosted guests for fall activities, some of the seasonal employees from those activities may be willing to continue into the Christmas season. High school students usually have friends in search of temporary work, and it’s always worth notifying local high schools, especially those with vo-ag programs, to spread the word that you’re hiring for the season.
Develop or review the job description for those who will be working during tree season, and include requirements such as the ability to work outdoors in a variety of weather conditions. Mention the fact that you’re seeking friendly, outgoing workers who relate well to both children and adults – and who are willing to work on weekends.
Hold a training session for all seasonal employees, including those you’ve employed in previous years. Training should include safety measures and expectations for everyone from parking lot workers and wagon drivers to field workers and cashiers.
Explain each job clearly, designate who will fill which position and provide some level of cross-training to allow for flexibility. Make sure all employees are aware of the chain of command – what constitutes an emergency and who to report to in an emergency. Have clear policy on how absences will be handled. After training, have employees sign a simple statement noting they have received training and are aware of what’s expected.
If your farm website or social media hasn’t been updated for a while, now is the time to do that. Include this season’s opening/closing dates, hours and conditions under which the farm might be closed. Today’s customers are accustomed to using social media to get information, so that’s a good place to provide information on current field conditions and possible closures due to weather. Designate someone to respond promptly to customers who contact you via email or through social media.
Spend some time in the fields, viewing them as a customer might. Determine when grass should be mowed, look for potential safety hazards and make a plan for mud abatement in case of wet weather. If wagons are used to transport customers to the fields, perform a thorough safety check, making sure steps and benches are sturdy and all gates can be properly latched. Check the loading area for potential hazards and designate a waiting area so no one is walking around where wagons are loading and unloading.
Have a clear policy on pricing and be firm that pricing is not up for discussion. First-time customers may not realize Christmas tree farms price trees in different ways, so it’s important to provide clear signage on that aspect. If trees are sold by the foot, be sure customers aware of pricing policies. If a customer cuts feet from the top of a nine-foot tree, which size tree do they pay for, and are they aware of that ahead of time?
If you display representative trees for customers to see prior to heading to the fields, include information about species and characteristics, and notify customers that the wagon guide can direct them to where those trees are located.
The area where customers arrive and pick up a saw to cut a tree and catch a wagon ride to the field can be chaotic, so think about how smoothly (or not) previous years have gone and develop a plan to avoid delays.
If you offer baling, suggest to guests that they select the best side of the tree and tag it with plastic ribbon prior to baling. This allows them to leave the baling wrap on until the tree is set up in their home, and the tag will indicate which side they selected as “the best.”
It’s worth spending time in autumn preparing for the busy U-cut season, and that time will pay off with satisfied and repeat customers.