Pick-your-own (PYO)/ u-pick farms have been around since the days of sharecropping. Recent education and events have led to an increase in popularity for both farmers looking to begin PYO farms and clients looking to pick.
As awareness of pesticide-infused crops grows, people are searching out ways to eat clean. As the boho movement grows, so does a shared interest in connecting to the Earth. And as the hobby farming/homesteading era continues stronger than ever (thanks in no small part to COVID’s lasting impact) people are looking for ways to make money off of their land.
For these reasons and more, it’s a great time for hobby farmers to consider starting a PYU operation.
A Study in Success
Megan Nebauer and her dad, Jack Nebauer, are the owners at Pure Land Farms in McKinney, Texas. The pair shared with us some successful strategies they’ve put in practice to make their operation profitable year round, despite only being open three to four months out of the year.
Megan, in fact, plans to combine her experiences, best tips and strategies into a book for the PYO market available fall 2023.
Pure Land Farms began operating on 28 acres in 2012, relying heavily on selling their products at farmers markets. Megan (a scientist) and Jack (an engineer) took on farming as an escape from their corporate jobs with the goal of growing great food and educating their community on local regenerative agriculture.
They quickly learned that following the farmers market model would take a very long time to meet their monetary goals. Weather, pick timing and customer loyalty are all factors that make farmers markets finicky. Switching gears, they moved to a u-pick model and quickly profited three to four times the amount they were making at farmers markets.
Good Reasons to U-Pick
Megan believes this industry is much more successful because it is more adaptable, engaging and sought after by the public. “People love u-pick farms. If they are just looking for clean fruits and vegetables, they’ll go to Whole Foods. People come because they want to know the farmer and see where their food comes from,” explains Megan.
As for adaptability, if it rains Megan can quickly open more spots for more picking opportunities on the next dry day. At a farmers market, people don’t attend in rain and you are stuck with a load of picked and ready fruit and vegetables that won’t make it another week. All profit is too easily lost.
Farmers markets also require the labor of picking and traveling. Time is money, and when clients both travel to the farm and pick their own products, two major chores get eliminated, providing more opportunity for profits.
Grow Great Food
When asked where the first dollar should get invested on a PYO farm, Megan immediately replies, “Grow great food. No marketing tactic or gimmick will matter if the food is not great quality.”
At Pure Land you won’t see elaborate walk-in coolers, buildings or hay rides. They are first and foremost a farm, and the simplicity of that is appealing to their clients. The checkout table is a picnic table, the bathrooms are portable and the staff is just Megan, Jack and a couple of cashiers.
Keeping the overhead low is not just a strategy for a higher profit. It’s also a strategy for marketing.
Connection Is Key
Conducting surveys and having conversations are two very real ways Megan stays connected with her clients. Being in touch with their desires and needs keeps her focused and intentional about what gets planted, what days work for picking and how she can best serve them. Being present and meeting visitors are also ways she can continue to educate pickers on the what/how/why of the crops they pick.
The No. 1 reason those surveyed come to the farm is because they can meet the farmer and learn about their food. These are qualities that continually rank above even the organic methods she practices, the low cost of her products and her location.
Megan also relies heavily on her software programs. Through trial and error, she has dialed in her technology. Her checkout software is so comprehensive she can determine the square foot monetary value of each crop she grows, thus giving her data reflective of what she should grow more and less of.
She also uses a booking program online for participants to pre-buy their limited picking spots. Through this software she can open as many spots as she wants each day. If the weather changes, she can quickly adjust. Participants can handle all reservations without ever having to communicate with a staff member of Pure Land Farms.
For every crop they grow, there is a blog article loaded on their website of what it is; how to pick it, clean it and prepare it; and a QR code advertised on each row. And of course she utilizes social media every day April through July—peak u-pick season.
Another powerful way she connects with clients and educates the public is through April field trips. When the farm is not yet open, schools and community groups can book a field trip to the farm ($12 per person) for a tour and lesson on seasons, bug life cycles and growing food. They all leave with a potted seedling to begin their own growing journeys.
Return trips double the value of this offering. “Nearly every single kid on a field trip revisits the farm when it opens for picking.” Megan explains.
Pure Land Farms grows blackberries, onions, peppers, garlic, squash, sunflowers, tomatoes, cucumbers, beets and melons, and is open mid-May through July.
If you are looking for helpful strategies for starting your own PYO Farm, good luck! Education in this area is difficult to research, as Megan learned firsthand. She is currently working with a publishing company to complete her book focused on business strategies for this industry. You can expect to see the book available in the Fall of 2023.