You-pick procedures a ‘mixed bag’ after COVID restrictions get relaxed
Two years ago, opening day for you-pick strawberries at Fred Coulbourn’s First Class Farms in Preston, Md., reminded him of the final scene of “Field of Dreams” when a long line of cars waited for miles to see the mythical Iowa baseball field.
“I opened the gate and the whole lane was packed,” he said.
People has been stuck in their homes for a few weeks as the COVID-19 virus reached its pandemic scale and were beyond eager to have an outside activity to break up their new routine.
“What I found is it was grandparents meeting up with grandchildren,” Coulbourn said. “It was a community where people were coming together.
Then his third year raising strawberries, he was thrilled to see the response, but given the circumstance, the unbridled crowd was concerning.
“I was like, ‘we can’t let this happen again.’” He said.
He quickly set up a reservation system to stagger people entering the patch and allow for distance between pickers and offered gloves and hand sanitizer as customers came and went.
“It worked well, but I don’t think many people liked it,” he said of the reservations, which he didn’t carry over into future years.
Two years later, as pandemic-induced restrictions have receded, some You-pick growers are reverting back to their pre-COVID procedure while others have found a reservation system is better for their business move and are keeping it in place.
The demographic a farm caters to plays a role, growers said, as does the farm’s proximity to other you-pick operations and preferences of the grower.
At Butler’s Orchard in Germantown, Md.,near Washington D.C., general manager Tyler Butler said they switched to an online ticketing system for You-pick reservations and after two years using the format, have desire to go back to the show-up-and-pick system.
“For the most part, we’re sticking with it,” Butler said. “We do still think it’s going to be massively successful.”
He said the reservation system has erased customer waiting times to get into the patch, which could stretch up to an hour on peak weekends, and better know in advance how much labor they will need for day based on the reservations.
Tyler Wegmeyer, president of Wegmeyer Farms, with three You-pick locations totaling 8 acres in Loudoun County, Va., was even more upbeat about shifting to online reservations. He said they had considered making the change for a couple years prior to the pandemic but nervous about making such a drastic change.
“We didn’t have the courage to do it, but COVID gave us confidence that we had to do something,” he said.
Wegmeyer said the move was surprisingly well-received by his customer base who went to the farm’s website by the thousands to reserve picking time slots and ultimately crashed the site the first few days.
“Instead of chaos in the field, we had online chaos,” he said.
But that was quickly remedied and Wegmeyer said they had a “significant” increase in customers and sales in 2020 and increased another 10 percent in 2021. He said online ordering through their farm store also boosted baked good sales and helped them better manage their production of that part of the business.
While he’s not banking on as much of an increase this year, he said the reservation system is staying.
“It got people accustomed to it so now they expect it,” he said. “It’s set up a path to the future,” he said. “We love it.”
Wegmeyer said he sees the reservation system a better fit for customers who come for the experience of picking berries over simply getting the fruit to take home.
A reservation allows them to plan the rest of their day without worrying about a wait time, he said, and when a reservation is made, the customer has made a commitment to visit the farm.
In what he referred to as “the Amazon effect,” he said people are used to purchasing event tickets online and using phones to do it. You-pick reservations simply fall in line with that.
“When you think of something you need, you just go to your phone and order it,” Wegmeyer said.”
After instituting a reservation system in 2020, Jay Yankey of Yankey Farms in Nokesville, Va., said they have adjusted to a hybrid model, keeping reservations in place for weekends when demand is typically highest and opening the patch to anyone for the weekdays.
“We kind of stumbled our way into it by necessity but it’s really worked out for us,” he said. “It just allows us to better match the number of people to the amount of berries we have available.”
Yankey said on days with really heavy traffic, their rows of strawberries could be picked clean two hours after opening and before they could post on social media they were closing the patch, several customers would have already arrived and were now getting turned away.
Now, a reservation system “saves that situation from happening,” he said. “There’s just not the crush of people.”
Farms that didn’t implement or stick with a reservation system are still keeping some of the changes due to the pandemic. Russ Shlagel of Shlagel Farms in Waldorf, Md., said reservations didn’t get much consideration for their operation but they are keeping the extra entrance and exit points they added during the pandemic which improved crowd movement and will put a pay station at the field edge for quicker service.
“We found it was a must and a necessity,” Shlagel said.
In the Virginia Beach area, where strawberry farms are more prevalent than any other part of the commonwealth, Extension Agriculture and Natural Resources agent Roy Flanagan said reservation systems didn’t get much traction largely due to the greater competition. If a potential picker couldn’t get a spot for the day he or she wanted, they’re might go to another farm before booking a spot on a different day at the first farm, Flanagan, who is also a strawberry grower, said.
When the pandemic set in, guidelines were issued to limit pickers to 10 people per field or sectioned-off area and adhere to social distancing and sanitization recommendations.
Many growers did change from selling berries per pound to selling by the container during the pandemic in order to reduce handling and contact with customers and Flanagan said it’s been a “mixed bag” of growers moving back or staying with the change.
With their move to online reservations, Butler and Wegmeyer also switched to charging by the container and aren’t going back. Shlagel and Coulbourn stuck to their per pound pricing, noting it remains a better fit for them.
“I think that’s the fairest way,” Coulbourn said. “Everybody has a different idea of how full you can get a container.”
Changing check-out procedures to eliminate contact during the pandemic hindered impulse buys at farms’ markets, however, and that’s something all growers are working to increase.
“Now that we’re past that, we want to encourage customers to come in and buy our produce and jar goods,” Flanagan said.
For Butler, offering some of the market’s better selling items at kiosks in the field has helped with additional sales and many customers seem unfazed by paying in advance for the you-pick experience when they shop in the market.
“When they’ve spent that money days in advance, then it’s like a fresh start when they come here,” he said.
He said Butler’s is also promoting its season pass, which allows customers to come pick anytime, as an option for people who bristled at the required reservations. Butler said over 1,000 people have opted for the season pass so far this year.
However each farm has constructed its You-pick program, the season is upon them.
“Next weekend it’ll be crazy,” Coulbourn said. “But we’ll be ready for them.”