U-Pick Berry Growing Opportunities For Rural Areas
At a recent Virginia statewide berries conference held at Virginia State University in Petersburg, VA, growers were asked if they felt their farm location was just too far away from towns or cities to allow them to have a successful U-Pick enterprise. Based on their show of hands, a majority of them believed their location to be too rural for U-Pick. Actually, since Virginia is an urbanizing state, I have never observed this to be true of any U-Pick berry farms in this region or state! As a former Virginia Cooperative Extension horticulturist, I visited many, many such rural enterprises during my career.
I always ask doubting potential berry growers how far they travel for the items they need and want, such as groceries and other shopping needs. Usually they respond that they travel 15 miles or less, one way. From our U-Pick experiences here and with other growers, I note that nowadays folks in Virginia towns and cities travel this far and much father for the purchases they want, especially now for fresh, local, health-providing berries! This era brings a new paradigm for all berry growers, a consumer-heightened awareness of the health benefits of eating berries, along with a very real and increasing demand and interest for purchasing fresh, locally produced food.
In my experience, the growers who have never tried growing U-Pick berries naturally are hesitant to try it. I tell them to go visit a berry U-Pick farm, especially during harvesting, and observe and absorb all they can. Seeing is believing! You can learn so much by basing your enterprise on the successful practices and details of an ongoing U-Pick berry farm. Growers are successful in rural areas, I believe, because of a number of factors.
For example, no one else around or near them grows berries for U-Pick. If others near them do grow a particular crop for U-Pick, strawberries for example, the other grower produces blackberries or berries other than strawberries; they share customers rather than start a competition. They produce high-quality, drip-irrigated, attractive berries, weed-free and easy to pick. And, they offer welcoming, friendly service to all.
Consumers Want What You Have
We have found at our farm that today’s consumers want every berry crop that you will provide for them. You don’t have to plant a big acreage of one crop, especially to start and learn on if you are a new berry grower. By planting several types of berries that ripen in succession one right after the other, you can get the same customers to come back for each small acreage crop as it ripens. For example, in succession we open with U-Pick blueberries in late June here at our mountain location in Southwest Virginia. They pick until early August, just as our thornless erect Arkansas-type blackberries begin picking for the next four weeks. Meanwhile, by the 10th of August or so, our late summer primocane red and golden high-flavor raspberries also begin picking and they go until fall frost, late September to early October. Our customers come back for each crop. The more colors you have, the greater the range of anti-oxidants you provide for your customers’ health and taste enjoyment.
Our Virginia Department of Transportation’s official map of roads with locations of towns and cities lists more than 950 towns within the state. Many are like the community nearest us of Prices Fork, with only a few hundred residents. Yet, within a 15-mile range of our farm live more than 30,000 people. All over Virginia in this new era for U-Pick berries, many folks are on the lookout, hoping to find places to purchase locally grown, healthy, fresh foods including all berry crops. Sadly, there are not many places anywhere around most towns in this state where townsfolk can find berries of any type.
At our farm, we have U-Pick berry customers who live 30, 40, 50, and even 60 miles away, who return time and time again to pick berries. They want to pick their berries for processing and especially for their freezers in order to enjoy them year-round. They are not worried about store prices or even stores’ “loss-leader specials.” These folks are at our farm because they want fresh, local, good stuff with no shipping, quality-compromised, road-weary miles. That is not for their berries! They gladly pay a premium for fresh, local berries they pick because such berries truly are the premium berries.
So, here’s my question to each potential berry grower: How far do you drive for the things you need and want? Nowadays, people who will become your future customers will drive that far and even farther for fresh, healthy berries that you can provide.