By Sharon Omahen
University of Georgia
With the season beginning in Georgia, pick-your-own strawberry farmers are preparing for this year's rush of visitors. You-pick farms are becoming popular statewide as a form of entertainment as well as a place to buy truly fresh fruit.
"Many you-pick farmers are realizing they need to offer more than just fruit picking to keep visitors coming back," said Jim Crawford, the University of Georgia Cooperative Extension coordinator in Jefferson County. "When it takes just 35 minutes to pick three buckets of berries, growers need to have more to offer visitors."
Pick fruit and pet animals
Some urban farmers are using their you-pick farms to educate "city folks" about agriculture, Crawford said.
Sheila Rice of Calhoun Produce in Ashburn and Sylvester, Ga., has offered what she calls "agritainment" to her customers for more than a decade.
"This is the 11th year we will hide more than 3,000 eggs in our strawberry patch for our community Easter egg hunt," she said. "Lots of people come to our farms for the family atmosphere, not just for the fruits and vegetables."
Calhoun Produce offers school field trips, hay rides and horse and buggy rides, too. "We also have animals like buffaloes on-site for visitors to see," she said. "We try to make visits to our farms educational. Children often think all their food comes from the grocery store and need to know that it doesn't."
Kids can 'ride' a tractor
Crawford says "agritainment" is popular in north Georgia, too. "A farm near Atlanta has 600,000 people within a 75-mile drive," he said. "Something as simple as having an antique, refurbished John Deere tractor at their entrance attracts people who want to capture on film the memory of their trip to the farm."
Tomatoes and peaches were two of the first fruits to debut in pick-your-own farms. Now, you can pick strawberries, blueberries and blackberries, too.
"Student field trips and pumpkin patches came next," Crawford said. "Now, corn mazes are really opening the eyes of you-pick farmers to the potential of tourism as a boost to their farm profits."
He said families also see trips to you-pick farms as family bonding excursions. "One farmer says she often sees kids with their mom one week and their dad the next week," he said.
Most farmers grow multiple crops
Entertainment or not, the fruit is still the take-home reason most people visit a you-pick farm. According to the Georgia Strawberry Growers Association, most strawberry growers also grow other fruits and vegetables to increase profits and serve more customers.
Back at Calhoun Farms, Rice agrees. "Our main crops are butterbeans and peas," she said. "Those are our moneymaking crops that we devote 1,300 acres to and use machines to pick."
Rice, whose mother Joyce Calhoun is the secretary of the state strawberry growers' association, grows 5.5 acres of strawberries. The Calhouns sell their produce to grocery chains like Harveys Supermarkets and Whole Foods Markets.
"You-Pick farmers don't rely solely on the customers to pick their fruit," Crawford said. "They all hire laborers to pick what the customers leave behind. Even when there are plenty of willing patrons, the berries grow faster than they can be picked by customers alone."
Find the nearest of 62 pick-your-own strawberry farms on a list at www.smallfruits.org/Strawberries/Marketing.htm. Any grower who would like to be added to the list can call the local UGA Extension office at 1-800-ASK-UGA1.