The world of agripreneurship has never been more exciting. Farmers are looking for new ways to market their produce, while newcomers escaping the industrial work system are rapidly joining their ranks.
If you are among those weighing your direct marketing options, you may want to consider the U-pick business. A U-pick operation invites customers out to the farm to harvest their own fruits, usually a mix of berries and tree crops.
As you can imagine, there are both advantages and disadvantages to this style of marketing. Is U-pick right for you? Let’s find out.
- Sell from the comfort of home. Not only are you working from home, but you won’t even need to drive to the farmers’ market!
- Little equipment required. All you really need to get started is an orchard, any supplies needed to maintain the orchard, restrooms and trashcans for the guests, a simple parking area, and some plastic containers to hold fruit. The largest requirement for a fruit business is knowledge, and knowledge-based businesses can offer excellent returns due to their low costs and high degree of differentiation.
- Excellent profit margin. There is little cost to running a U-pick farm relative to other forms of agritourism. At the same time, fruit is a high-value product, especially if it is organic. This means that you can reap an excellent return on your initial investment.
- Fruit at its finest. Fruit is best when fresh off the plant and spared the trauma of shipping. On top of that, U-pick customers often find that the tastiest fruit is that which they have picked themselves.
- Experience marketing. Driving to the farm to pick up produce can be a chore. However, with wise planning and marketing, it can become a one-of-a-kind event. A positive and memorable experience helps build the type of business that people can’t stop talking about—a huge plus in the world of agritourism, where word-of-mouth promotion still dominates.
- Complementary opportunities. A U-pick business can fit well with numerous other enterprises. For instance, sheep could be grazed under fruit trees over the summer to keep the grass short, while poultry could be rotated through to eat insect pests and dropped fruit. Likewise, you could round out your guests’ experience with additional products and services, such as cut flowers or a hay bale maze for the children.
- Slow startup. You will not be able to invite guests out to your farm to start picking the first year that you plant your brambles and trees. Therefore, you will need to do some cash flow planning in advance. What will you live on the first year?
- Skill and knowledge requirements. Fruit growing is a pursuit that requires specialized knowledge. Some of this knowledge can be gleaned online and from books, but it must be adapted to your local growing conditions to be of any use. This means that the learning curve can be rough and rocky.
- Crop failures. Fruits, particularly organic fruits, are notoriously finicky. Organic apple producers count on harvesting a crop three years out of every five, and apples are one of the more forgiving fruits to grow. You will want to protect yourself from a catastrophic crop failure by planting a mix of species and varieties.
- Location considerations. A U-pick farm depends on a good flow of customers coming through the gates to stay in business. Proximity to a highway is almost a must. Farms in more rural locations will likely struggle to draw customers to a U-pick farm.
- Small customer base. Berries are a specialty crop. This means that there is a relatively small pool of customers, but these customers are willing to pay very high prices. It is important to know before starting whether your local area is home to the select group of customers who will travel to purchase organic fruit direct from the farm.
- Guests on your farm. Guests may litter, make noise, and investigate off-limits areas of your property. Clear boundaries that are consistently enforced will help, but your entire family needs to be on board, as well.
- Damage and waste. Inexperienced guests will damage your berry plants and fruit trees from time to time. Sometimes they will drop and waste fruit, and very rarely will they completely harvest every plant for you. If children participate in the picking, these risks increase. Make it easier for your guests to have a positive experience by providing harvest guidelines and easy-to-handle containers for holding fruit. Also, be prepared to glean the orchard yourself.
- Narrow harvest window. Fruits ripen within a very short space of time and quickly go out of season. Furthermore, fruit alone will provide no income in the winter and early spring months. Growing multiple types of fruit will help, but you definitely want to consider additional streams of income to provide you with a steadier cash flow.
If you are an agripreneurial type with highway frontage and a family willing to welcome the public out to the farm, you may find that a U-pick operation is just what you are looking for.
Before you get started, however, do your preparation. You don’t need special equipment, but you do need a marketing strategy, a cash flow plan, and extensive knowledge of fruit growing. Complementary enterprises will be crucial to your success, as fruit growing is highly seasonal and also rather tricky. This adds an additional element of challenge to launching a U-pick farm because, unless you have prior experience either with fruit or with your complementary enterprise of choice, you will likely be learning two trades at once.
Therefore, U-pick is probably one of the most demanding agritourism enterprises to start when it comes to the level of knowledge required. But it is a venture that can reward the efforts of a savvy agripreneur who loves to grow fruit.