It had to happen. The other night there was an indignant , impassioned message left on the answering machine. It went like this: “Why are you not opening your PYO strawberry beds? Wellwood Orchard is open, and they are farther away than you are. Why aren’t you open? You are stupid. You are wasting money.”
I was tempted to return the call, but the fear of reprisals from my dear wife and daughter made me hesitate. Then I considered the intellect of whom I might be trying to argue with. How bright could they possibly be? Do they really think that we are hoarding strawberries from them because we don’t like to make money? I reconsidered my call, and opted not to.
But when we started harvesting our first strawberry crop 38 years ago, we really counted on the PYO folks essentially to harvest that crop for us. Anne and I were the only pickers and we had no wholesale accounts. It worked well for many years. Back then there was no profusion of berries all winter long at the grocery store so strawberry season was as real summer landmark event, and people came in weather good and bad. They turned out frequently during the season and then frequently returned again. They picked for themselves, some picked for resale, others picked for shut ins and elderly folks. The PYO crowd was a tangible, dependable work force for us in 1980.
Fast forward to 2014. We have a new word- agritainment. Some people come to the farm not for the strawberries but for the experience….usually on a sunny day. They come to the farms because they like the wagon rides, or the petting zoo…. But this measurable fact exists that we harvest essentially the same tonnage of fruit with twice as many patrons in 2013 as we had in the field in 1980. Why? Pretty decent product abounds in warmer areas and gets shipped here. Strawberries from Watsonville or Plant City. Blackberries from Arkansas in the spring, but Mexico during the winter. Raspberries from Guatemala. Our strawberries just aren’t as big a deal as they were 30 years ago(despite the evidence of our phone call the other night). People aren’t as motivated to pick, and they pick smaller quantities. Fewer people freeze or make their own jam. It is now as much a nice sunny day’s activity as it is fresh strawberries on a shortcake.
So over time we have had to modify our harvest. PYO is still important and there not as many PYO Strawberry farms statewide as there were in the 80’s, but we need to have a way of guaranteeing that the crop will be harvested. So we have a field crew on the farm that harvests the vegetable and fruits as well as grows and cares for them. And we have some wholesale accounts as well as pick for our CSA customers and folks who visit the farmstand. The crew works on rainy days (PYO folks do not) they need very little management-other than coffee and donuts and pay- (PYO folks need extra facilities, parking and lots of direction and management). The crew monitors crop development and ripening for us (PYO folks are generally only interested in what they have in their bucket and their own experience in the field. There really has to be a large critical mass of ripe fruit out there ready for them when you open) and our farm crew picks in a clean organized fashion (some PYO folks harvest cleanly, but not as a rule). Bottom line is that running a good harvest crew is a profitable and dependable way to harvest the crop whereas PYO is more fickle and weather dependent.
So that explains the integrated approach we currently employ. We always grow more than we need for our stand, CSA and wholesale needs, and do so specifically for the U-pick. But more and more PYO is a gamble. And you know how I prefer to bet on a sure thing.