by Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

Strawberries, flowers, crop mazes and Christmas trees: expansion is the word at Strawberry Fields and Florist, a farm turned tourist destination in Auburn, NY. Proprietor Linda Eldred and a friend promised each other as girls that they would never marry farmers. Of course, they grew up and did just that. Eldred’s farmer husband is Doug, who operates Eldred Hay Grain and Seed, a 1,500-acre farm. (The friend married a dairyman.) Doug has also helped Linda bring to fruition her plan to open a hydroponic strawberry operation.

Linda Eldred never imagined she would operate an agritourism operation. Photo courtesy of Linda Eldred

Linda purchased the hydroponic equipment from Raye Jansen, a local grower who struggled to keep her hydroponic farm going. The berries grew fine; however, her backroads location made it impossible for Jansen to attract pickers. The Eldreds’ property sits on busy New York State Routes 5 and 20 between the tourist town of Skaneateles and bustling Auburn. This spot is ideal for a business relying upon U-pick enthusiasts.

“My husband said, ‘If we do this, it’s going to be your deal,’” Linda said. “I said yes, as I was pretty much done with homeschooling.”

With extra time on her hands, she could throw herself into launching the berry business. After purchasing and setting up the hydroponic system’s towers, irrigation lines and the small building that came with it, the Eldreds moved the whole infrastructure to set up at their property.

“Everyone was so curious,” Linda recalled. “It’s a unique way of growing, as you can grow more vertically.”

Since the berry plants grow in an organic medium in buckets on poles, customers never need to crouch or stoop to pick. The ground is covered in weed suppression material so the only regular work involved is trimming suckers from the plants so they produce more berries and managing the nutrients in the irrigation lines. The plants receive water and nutrients three times a day automatically for three minutes each feeding.

“We have a little pumphouse and there are vats in it with an agitator,” Linda said. “My husband does that part. He does the magic in there and I operate the gift shop and greet people.”

The nutrients include calcium, magnesium, nitrogen and other nutrients that would be inherent to soil. Since the plants do not have to compete with weeds, they grow well and produce large, abundant berries.

When the first hard frost comes, the plants die. Because they are not planted in the ground, they do not overwinter. Linda composts them and she and her seasonal help plant all new plants every spring.

Linda began with 12,000 plants, taking a week to completely position the roots into media. With more help and familiarity with the set-up, she can get 17,000 plants ready in three days.

She opened for business in June 2009. The novelty of picking berries while standing appealed the tourists and locals. The business proved so successful that she expanded to include a gift shop. Instead of selling gifts and novelties available anywhere, their offerings focus on locally made goods and artisan crafts. The strategy has proven key to attracting discerning local shoppers and curious tourists.

Eventually, Linda added more attractions to make Strawberry Fields a destination, not just a place to buy farmstead goods. The business is open from early May through the end of December, although the floral shop will fill orders year-round.

“It’s unique and different,” Linda said. “It is something we could offer the community to help grow the tourist industry.”

Jansen occasionally visits Strawberry Fields. Last summer, she embraced Linda and told her “I am so proud of you. You have taken this business to a whole new level,” according to Linda. “She’s very supportive of us. I sometimes feel bad that it’s bittersweet for her in that she loved the concept. It was just a bad location.”

Guests of Strawberry Fields can wander among the sunflowers behind the gift shop. Photo by Deborah J. Sergeant

Linda’s busy location allowed her to grow the business. As buses began stopping to tour the strawberry field, she knew she needed more for them to do. She added a 12-acre sunflower maze in 2017. Last year she had Doug plant half to sunflowers and half to corn to expand the longevity of the maze concept.

“Not as many people like the corn maze,” Linda said. “It’s not as popular, so I don’t know if we’ll do it again. But once the sunflowers are done, they’re done. If we staggered the planting, we might be able to have it go longer. They normally last three to four weeks, depending on the weather. 2021 was a terrible, rainy summer and we lost the whole month of July when it rained about every day. Even the strawberries didn’t yield as much. The sunflowers didn’t last as long.”

The business’s 2021 addition, the floral shop, sprang from Linda’s natural knack for flower arranging. She and a friend also work at decorating the shop to draw in browsers.

The Eldreds also grow pumpkins and Indian corn to sell in the shop. Their varied offerings spurred them to host festivals based upon what they grow, including a strawberry festival, a fall festival and perhaps this year, a sunflower festival to help draw crowds with games, face painting and other family-friendly attractions.

For the fall festival, a family member built a slingshot for flinging pumpkins into the field, which Linda said was “a big hit” for guests.

Selling local, freshly cut Christmas trees provided a means for Linda to keep the shop open longer. She makes wreaths and centerpieces with her floristry skills and sells ornaments and other holiday items in the shop. “People love the local products,” she said. “They love our jams. They make nice gifts. For people who have everything, what do you get them? Something to eat. I also make gift baskets.”

The Eldreds have their own hives, tended by local beekeeper Howard Haines, to provide honey for the shop.

Though COVID-19 hampered the motor coach tours, Linda has seen an uptick of people looking for outdoors activities. “The weather is the biggest challenge,” she said. “That’s farming. You depend on the weather and make the best of it. Sometimes, you can do this to make it work and the next year, it’s something totally different.”

She experiences the usual retail struggles also: trying to find unique products to offer tourists and the community. If she carries what every other tourist shop and farm market carries, business will drop off.

“I ask myself ‘Why would people want to stop here?’” she said. “We are different and have all these different entities. I try to keep up with that and always having the local people in there keeps it local-minded. That’s very important.”