To Charge Or Not To Charge At Farm Markets

To Charge Or Not To Charge

There seems to be a delicate balance between what customers will pay for and what they won’t, especially concerning “extras” like value-added entertainment features at farm markets including hayrides, straw piles, and corn mazes. In many cases, these features attract customers to a farm market and keep them there longer than the average visit to come in and buy apples. But at what point do growers have to seek some return for all of the investment it takes to keep these attractions going? David Patterson of Patterson Fruit Farm in Chesterland, OH, says when it becomes too expensive to maintain and you start losing money, it’s time to start charging admission fees.

“Before we started charging admission, we used to put straw in a big pile out front and let kids climb on it,” Patterson says. “It became expensive to maintain ­— we didn’t have a shelter over it so when it got wet, the straw bales would fall apart. Our question was, ‘If we want to keep doing this, how do we make it pay?’ And the answer was to charge admission.”Patterson Fruit Farm has invited customers to its property since the 1960s, when it began offering pick-your-own (PYO) apples. In 1991, the operation grew beyond the strawpile it offered for kids to climb on for free, to build its Family Fun Fest, a fall event that runs from the third week in September until Halloween.

When the festival began, Patterson charged $2 per person and as its features grew and expanded, admission increased to $5 per person on weekends and $3 per person on weekdays, with children under age 2 admitted free. Patterson says while most customers pay admission with no complaints, there are still those who don’t understand why parents or grandparents are charged.

“It’s a family fun fest and we want to encourage the family playing together, not just dropping your kids off and letting them play,” Patterson says. “We want the moms and dads right there in the straw with the kids.”

Patterson Fruit Farm operates a market at the entrance to its Family Fun Fest, where visitors can buy apples, gifts, and other agricultural products. The market and festival are on the same site as the farm’s PYO orchard as well. Patterson says the operation does charge more for its apples and other products because its operating costs are higher than an orchard that doesn’t offer activities; however, asking customers to pay these prices also allows the farm to keep admission rates low in comparison to other family events in the area.

“I think people perceive a larger value with all the extra things to do,” Patterson says. “If we didn’t offer the attractions and have that extra revenue, I think we would have a hard time being where we’re at today because the cost of land in this area and the cost of business is so expensive.”

The Family Fun Fest is the most profitable entertainment offering Patterson Fruit Farm operates, Patterson says, and it continues to grow each year through word-of-mouth and even second-generation families making the festival an annual tradition. The operation measures its costs and profits from Family Fun Fest visitors by how much beyond the festival rate they spend, and track it on a daily and weekly basis.

“We consider ourselves apple growers and apple sellers, and that’s still our main business,” says Patterson. “By people purchasing the apples and cider there in the market, it allows us to keep our admission price lower than if they weren’t buying everything.”

Fewer Customers, Better Profits

In a July e-mail to American Fruit Grower, Ross Nelson of Nelson Apple Farm in Webster, MN, said in 2005 his operation began charging customers $4 per person over age 6 and $2.50 per person for age 6 and under. The admission fee came after the orchard experienced a decline in profitability when families or child care groups would spend two hours or more at the orchard on wagon rides, at the petting zoo or the corn stalk crawl, without purchasing anything.

After the orchard began charging fees, some customers did complain, Nelson said, but most of the customers were very accepting of the admission fee and understood why the change was made. By the 2006 season, there was much less resistance, he said, and positive aspects included a less congested parking lot, less frequent wagon rides with better service, and, most importantly, increased profits.

Keep ‘Em Coming

Patterson Fruit Farm in Chesterland, OH, knows how to keep its customers coming back for more. Its annual Family Fun Fest adds a new attraction each year, and changes its features annually.

This fall’s attractions included a new treehouse in the woods, which featured the operation’s perennially popular bouncing bridge and a watch tower. Two racing slides down a hill was a big draw, as was the slide through a tree.

Repeat attractions included Patterson’s signature straw pile under a pavilion, which incorporates 600 straw bales, slides, tunnels, tractor tire swings, and more. The festival also includes a corn maze, playhouses, concessions, and face painting, among other activities.

A huge event each year is the return of children’s music celebrity Suzi Shelton for a concert in her hometown. Patterson’s also offers discount rates for birthday parties and events.

The orchard has many activities throughout the year at its maple sugar house, and its reception hall is rented for weddings and other events. In June, the farm opens its pick-your-own strawberry fields for the summer.

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“Those families that were at the orchard to ride the wagon, see the petting zoo, walk through our 7-acre corn maze, and purchase little were irate (about the admission fee),” Nelson said. “We got rid of a group of people who were not paying their way and made it better for those who were here to have a good time and let us make a profit.”

The orchard’s plan for this fall was to again charge the $4/$2.50 fee and improve check-out lines to better accommodate the Fun Fee charge, said Nelson. By fall 2008, he plans to increase the admission price to return to the level of profit Nelson Apple Farm experienced in the past.

Nelson added that other orchards around his local area near the suburbs of Minneapolis/St. Paul were experiencing the same problems and said if all apple growers charge for entertainment services, it will lead to profits for all.

“Unfortunately, most orchard owners are not good business people and don’t really know if they are making money or not,” Nelson wrote. “I am the treasurer for the Minnesota Apple Growers Association, and we will continue to have seminar topics at the annual conference on such topics as what growers can do to increase their profitability.”

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