Pick-Your-Own Pointers From Expert Blueberry Grower

Bob McConnell and his wife, Debby. (Photo credit: Christina Herrick)
Bob McConnell and his wife, Debby. (Photo credit: Christina Herrick)

If you call McConnell’s Berry Farm during blueberry season, you’re likely to hear a voice mail recording of Debby McConnell advising what pick-your-own appointments – if any – are available for the next two weeks.

This berry farm, located near Morgantown, WV, is quite popular. So popular the McConnells limit the number of people coming to their farm. The farm is open for four, four-hour picking sessions a week. They do not do any retail, everything is pick-your-own.

“When people come, they know they will get berries,” Bob McConnell says. “You want to make sure people have a nice experience.”

If the last name of McConnell sounds familiar to readers of American Fruit Grower® and Western Fruit Grower® magazines, that’s because Bob McConnell is the son of George McConnell, a longtime contributor to the magazine starting in the late ’60s.

“My father had been growing strawberries all his life,” Bob McConnell says. “They started growing blueberries when I was just about out of high school.”

The McConnells said 2016 was their last picking season. He says he has pickers who are 60 to 70 years old, some of whom have been coming to his farm since he opened in the fall of 1980. The berry farm was opened as a summertime venture. McConnell is a now-retired professor at West Virginia University, teaching electrical engineering for 32 years. His wife, Debby, is a retired public school teacher.

“We’ve just had so many good experiences and developed close relationships with our customers,” McConnell says.

With this wealth of knowledge and experience in his operation over the years, McConnell says it’s important for that information to be shared with those looking to enter the pick-your-own world, even on a small scale.

“There is a lot of information that experienced people have, but it isn’t written down,” he says.

Bob McConnell shows the easy-to-use way to raise or lower his bird netting for pickers. (Photo credit: Christina Herrick)
Bob McConnell shows the easy-to-use way to raise or lower his bird netting for pickers. (Photo credit: Christina Herrick)

Opportunities For The Next Generation
McConnell says a pick-your-own berry operation is a great opportunity for young people interested in farming in a smaller way. But, there are a few things someone hoping to get into farming should do.

First and foremost, before you plant anything, you need to know what you’re doing with the berries you will grow, McConnell says.

“The question they need to answer is how big of a population do you need to be able to support the number of acres you want to put in?” he asks.

McConnell says there should be a berry patch about their farm’s size – 2,000 plants on four acres — for every 50,000 people in an area. The average person eats about a half pound of berries a year, he says.

“How will you market your berries?” he says.

Depending upon what you choose to do – pick-your-own, etc. – you have to plan your farm differently. If you choose to have people come to your farm and pick, you also need to decide the frequency with which they come. The McConnells chose appointments so their need for staffing is lower, but if your berry farm is open all the time, you will need a higher level of help – and parking.

“Are you going to be open only three days a week? Are you selling by volume? You have to be able to handle the people,” he says. “How are they going to get access [to your farm and to your berries]? “Are you going to pick the whole field in one day? If so, you’re going to need lots of parking.”

Don’t forget the sinage, bathrooms, and handwashing stations either.

Deploying this crowd management strategy, his customers get their fill – and his berry plants get picked clean. He opens certain rows based on what looks ready, and by having a larger group of people in one area, it helps ensure berries will be had by all.

“About 30-35 appointments are as many as we can handle [at once],” he says. “If we have more, parking becomes a problem and the experience is more impersonal.”

It also helps to keep pickers interested in what’s open, McConnell says.

“If I come out to the field and see people in one section, I think ‘Gee, it must be important,’ more people in a field do a much better job of picking,” he says.

McConnell guesstimates about three people come per appointment, and leave with about four buckets full – or about 20 pounds of berries. Crowd management is only one of the components of operating a small farm, which McConnell says he’s learned over time.

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