Are You Ready to Start a Pick-Your-Own Farm?
|Publication Date:||January 2018|
|Last Reviewed:||April 06 2018|
|Written by:||Jessica Kelly|
PDF Version - 422 KB
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Table of Contents
At a pick-your-own (PYO) or u-pick operation, customers pick, cut or choose their own product out of the field. This direct marketing channel is commonly used for berries, tree fruit, pumpkins and Christmas trees but has also expanded to items such as beans, cut flowers and culinary herbs.
The OMAFRA Factsheet, Developing an Agri-Tourism Operation in Ontario, and the province of Alberta's Have You Got What It Takes to Be a Direct Marketer? checklist are great resources to assess your personal and business suitability for direct marketing and PYO.
PYO was highly popular in the 1970s and 1980s, and has experienced a resurgence due to the local food movement. Long-standing PYO farms, however, have noticed a shift in their customers' motivations over the years. Historically, PYO customers were typically efficient pickers gathering large amounts of fruit for canning or preserving. Today, PYO customers are often individuals or families seeking out the "farm experience," but picking only small quantities of produce. Shifting customer expectations is just one of many things to consider before starting a pick-your-own farm.
Planning and Operations
Planning and operating a PYO farm is complex business, and there are many different facets to consider.
Layout, Parking and Customer Flow
The layout of the operation can greatly enhance or detract from a PYO experience for both the customer and the operator. When laying out a PYO operation, consider:
- parking area(s) that are clearly marked and appropriate for the number of vehicles expected.
- placement of check-in station(s) for customers to receive containers, pricing information, picking instructions and ask any questions they may have. (Figure 1)
- placement of washrooms
- placement of concession, farm retail space (if applicable)
- customer flow between parking lot, check-in, container pick-up, fields, checkout, retail area, etc.
- customer flow that decreases the opportunity for theft and encourages the purchase of complementary products
- flow of farm traffic, such as hayrides to transport PYO customers and other farm traffic, including staff vehicles
- distance from parking lot to check-in and farthest picking area, keeping crop rotation in mind
- use of signs, ropes and fences to prevent customers from walking into an area that has recently been sprayed, contains farm equipment or is otherwise unsuitable for the public
- impact that extreme weather, such as heavy rain or flooding, may have on usability of parking and other facilities
- neighbours' sensitivity to noise, traffic, crowds, etc.
- plans for future expansion
Figure 1. Check-in area with clear directional and instructional signs.
Many producers underestimate the amount of labour and the related costs needed for a PYO operation. In your planning, factor in people to:
- greet customers
- provide information and direction
- transport customers and products to and from the fields and/or parking lot
- give directions once customers are in the field
- demonstrate picking techniques
- be cashiers
- harvest overlooked produce
Communicating With Customers
All agri-tourism operations, including PYO, have the challenge of building a brand, communicating to customers and getting people through the farm gate. For PYO operations, the information that needs to be communicated can be ever-changing - an extra challenge! Farm websites, radio spots, social media and voicemail recordings can be effective ways to share picking hours, crops in-season and weather conditions.
PYO operations can be wonderful destinations for families with young children and a great way for children to learn about food production. However, it is important to clearly communicate expectations around children and the appropriateness of activities for various ages. What will you communicate to customers about the need to supervise children? Will you have a minimum age for picking?
On the farm, communication and supervision are important to help customers navigate the farm without confusion, find the products they are looking for, get answers to their questions about food production and have an enjoyable experience overall. Supervision can also help prevent damage to crops and injury to customers or staff.
Successful PYO farms have extensive, effective signage. Different types of signs include:
- directional (point customers to various locations on the farm, identify rows to be picked/not picked)
- informational (farm rules, seasonal availability, varieties and prices, farm history)
- educational (instructions for picking, information about production practices)
In areas with diverse populations, there can be value in having signage or print materials in more than one language.
Risk Management and Regulation
Bringing guests to the farm can expose your visitors, staff and farm to hazards and risk. The OMAFRA Factsheet, Managing Risk on Farms Open to the Public, walks through three main approaches for risk management:
- Reduce risk: Improve safety and reduce hazards throughout the farm.
- Manage risk: Make contingency plans and establish emergency protocols in case something does go wrong on the farm.
- Transfer risk: Get insurance coverage for accidents or other emergencies.
As sellers of produce, PYO farms are regulated specifically under Ontario Regulation 119/11, Produce, Honey and Maple Products, of the Food Safety and Quality Act, 2001. This regulation covers food safety matters, packaging, labelling, transporting, advertising and sale of produce. Under this regulation, producers are responsible for ensuring that produce harvested is safe and free from contamination and packed in containers that are appropriate for the produce. The regulation also outlines labelling requirements. However, raspberries or strawberries that are packaged in the field in containers with capacity of 1.14 L or less are exempt from these labelling requirements. Also, all food sold in Canada must meet the requirements under the Food and Drugs Act, regulated by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA).
PYO and agri-tourism operations may be impacted by other regulations and requirements, including:
- zoning and bylaws - local municipality
- property tax assessment - Municipal Property Assessment Corporation (MPAC)
- food premise regulations, inspections and drinking water - local health unit
- signage regulations and programs - local municipality and tourism-oriented directional signing (TODS)
Customers visiting a PYO can introduce food safety risks to the farm and the crops that are being harvested. Customers picking their own products can carry and spread pathogens, resulting in food safety risks from PYO crops. Producers can help promote food safety for edible PYO products through a number of practices, including (but not limited to):
- encouraging hand-washing or proper sanitizing techniques before and after picking
- providing clean, fully stocked washrooms and hand-washing stations
- limiting wild and domestic animal access to PYO fields
- limiting customer access on the farm, and between PYO fields and livestock or petting zoos (if applicable)
- using only clean materials, straw or mulch (never used animal bedding) in between PYO rows
Complementary Products, Attractions or Market Channels
PYO may provide a foundation for potential business growth or be a new service added to an existing agri-tourism operation. For customers who do not have the time, ability or desire to pick their own product, on-farm retail with some pre-picked product is a nice complement. Value-added products, such as jams and other preserves, are methods to utilize surplus or lower-quality fruit and add variety to the shelves. Some farms choose to sell complementary products as well, such as pumpkin carving kits, Christmas tree stands or pectin for making jam. On-farm school tours may also incorporate PYO activities.
Evaluating potential profitability is an important step in planning a PYO venture. This is not an easy step, however, as it depends on all your costs (some can be controlled, some can't), how many people you expect through the farm gate and how you price your PYO experience.
Investments and Expenses
Farmers often focus on production-related expenses. Meanwhile, there is a large range of investments and recurring expenses associated with operating a PYO farm. Although not comprehensive, here is a list of some costs associated with operating a PYO operation:
- picking containers and product packing materials
- check-in area: tent, pavilion, shed or building
- specialty equipment for PYO customer transport
- specialty equipment for PYO product packaging (such as a tree shaker)
- cash registers (or other point-of-sale equipment)
- monthly subscriptions for software, apps, etc.
- legal-for-trade scale for weighing items sold by weight
- staff costs (wages, benefits, vacation, WSIB premiums)
- staff uniforms
- marketing (signage, brand development, website design, social media management, business cards, print marketing materials)
- concession stand and/or retail store inventory
- tables or shelves for product display or storage
- coolers/freezers for product storage
- grounds maintenance equipment
- gravel for driveway or parking lot
- fencing materials
- wagons or sleds to transport product
- vehicle repair, maintenance and fuel
- benches and/or picnic tables
- portable toilet rental and maintenance fees
- hand-washing stations
- toilet paper, paper towels, hand soap, etc.
- trash cans, bags, trash and recycling pick-up services
- insurance (property, vehicle, liability)
- professional fees (legal, accounting)
- utilities (water, sewer, electrical, gas)
- phone and Internet
- office supplies
Consider the "3 Cs" to take some of the guesswork out for pricing for PYO:
Costs - What is your cost to grow the crop and offer the PYO experience?
Be comprehensive in your estimate of costs. This might include production inputs, labour, picking containers, equipment, marketing, insurance, utilities, portable toilet rentals, etc. Remember to include a value for your own time as the owner. Leave a buffer for reduced yield due to customers leaving product in the field, eating while picking, damaging plants and picking inefficiently.
Competitors - What are your competitors charging?
Hit the road to do some mystery shopping and explore other farms' websites and social media channels. Consider how your customer experience stacks up against competitors' and then determine if your pricing reflects that.
Customers - What are your customers willing to pay?
Talk with prospective PYO customers and consider customer demographics. Remember that there can be very localized subtleties in customers' willingness to pay for a product or experience.
There are a number of other considerations for PYO pricing:
- Will you price higher or lower than pre-picked product?
Some farms have lower prices for PYO while other charge higher prices due to reduced yields, waste, and staff to oversee PYO.
- Will you charge admission or just charge for product
PYO farms that focus on providing a rich agri-tourism experience for their visitors, often charge admission. Admission revenue can be instrumental in covering costs if your customer base is primarily coming for the farm experience but picking very little. Some farms put the admission towards the produce customers pick or have a minimum price per person (for example, everyone pays to pick 1 L, regardless of how much they pick). Some farms choose to waive admission fees for customers picking large quantities of produce or loyal, repeat customers.
- Will you price by volume (container size), count or
When making this complicated choice, think about what will be simplest for customers and staff, while being fair to you as the farmer. Pricing by volume may be challenging, if customers bring their own containers, and creates an incentive to overfill. By-weight pricing involves an extra step at check-out and runs the risk of upsetting customers with sticker shock - "I had no idea this basket of apples would cost that much!" Consider displaying sample items to help manage customer expectations. Pricing by count can be a simple option for larger items; however, you don't want the potential for staff-customer disagreement about pricing (for example: disagreeing about whether a pumpkin should be priced as large or small). See Figure 2.
- Will customers pay before or after they pick?
The decision about when PYO customers pay should be closely connected with decisions made around your farm set-up and flow. Keep in mind that with pre-paying, you may miss out on customers' spontaneous decisions to purchase more, particularly if the picking field is far from the payment station.
Figure 2. A playful scale and measuring stick. Some farms use these tools to add fun and remove the need for judgement when pricing PYO items.
Customer Convenience and Comfort
PYO operators may want to consider the following items related to customer convenience and comfort:
- hours of operation that are convenient, including evenings and weekends
- a variety of payment methods
- access to clean restroom facilities, including baby change station
- shelter from weather conditions
- access to drinking water or other refreshments
- tasting station to try different varieties and discourage in-field sampling
Measuring and Improving
What does success look like? When starting a new venture, it's important to consider your goals and develop some indicators of success that you can measure and work toward improving each season. Potential measures to track include:
- number of visitors
- total sales
- sales per visitor
- expenses by category
- weather conditions
- timing and method of promotions
- where customers are coming from
- how customers are learning about your operation
- injuries or accidents
No PYO farm will get it all right in its first season! Be open to feedback from customers. It is easy to ignore customers who complain about bad experiences, but your business will benefit from your willingness to have these tough conversations. Be open to feedback from staff and empower them to put their ideas into action. Successful PYO farms grow and evolve over time in response to those who know the operation best - its customers and staff.
Meeting and learning from other farmers who have successfully opened their gates to the public is an important ingredient for success for new PYO farms. Both the Ontario Farm Fresh Marketing Association (OFFMA) and the North American Farmers' Direct Marketing Association (NAFDMA) are member-based organizations committed to advancing the direct marketing and agri-tourism (including PYO) industry and supporting the business success of their members. Educational tours, workshops, webinars and conferences are just some of the opportunities afforded to members.
North American Farmers'
Direct Marketing Association (NAFDMA)
OMAFRA Factsheet: Developing an Agri-Tourism Operation in Ontario.
Food and Drugs Act, Government of Canada.
Alberta Agriculture, 2003.
Health Services In Your Community: List of Public Health Units, Ontario Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care.
How to Develop a Pick-Your-Own Business. University of Vermont Extension, December 2014.
OMAFRA Factsheet: Managing Risk on Farms Open to the Public.
Ontario Regulation 119/11 Produce, Honey and Maple Products under the Food Safety and Quality Act, 2001, Government of Ontario.
Pick-Your-Own (U-Pick) Marketing, University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service, 2005.
Tourism signs on Ontario's roadways. Tourism-Oriented Directional Signing (TODS), Ontario Ministry of Tourism, Culture, and Sport.
Much of the content in this factsheet was originally written by Megan Bruch Leffew and Matthew Ernst of the Center for Profitable Agriculture, published in September 2014 as University of Tennessee Extension: A Farmers' Guide to a Pick-Your-Own-Operation.
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