- Author: Penny Leff
The people of Suzie's Farm, diversified organic growers in San Diego, have explored many ways to connect their customers to the farm and the good food growing on the farm. They offer regular farm tours, a CSA program, strawberry U-Pick days, farm dinners and other events. About a year ago, farm manager Lauren Gagliano Saline and her staff noticed that some of their customers wanted more chances to get their hands dirty, maybe to harvest their own CSA.
Suzie's staff tried an unguided vegetable U-Pick, letting customers pick vegetables from the fields. That didn't work out so well. Many people didn't know how to walk in the fields without trashing the beds, and didn't know how to harvest the different crops, and the random picking adventures tied up staff time. So Lauren and the team created a guided U-Pick option, and the U-Pick Harvest Club was born.
Now about fifty U-Pick Harvest Club members pick their own CSA every week. They join and prepay for four, eight, sixteen or more "picks". Each "pick" is a varying list of eight items with a set quantity of each item, designed to be approximately equal to a CSA share. Harvest Club members are told the times each week that they can pick their shares, on Tuesday, Saturday or Sunday. The picking times are when farm staff are leading their regular farm tours, so Harvest Club members join any of the tours and are supervised in their picking by the tour leaders. Of course they are not charged for the tour, which usually costs $10 per person.
Another advantage the U-Pick Harvest Club members enjoy is the chance to customize their pick, an option not available to regular CSA members. Rather than picking a set amount of each of the eight items, they are allowed to substitute more of one crop if they prefer. For example, they can pick eight melons one week if melons are one of the listed items, and take none of the other things on the list. And some people, Lauren explained, just prefer to pick that perfect bunch of kale. Harvest Club members are also allowed to bring along up to three people to "help" them pick - which includes the free farm tour.
The first year of Suzie's U-Pick Harvest Club has been a success, seeing steady growth and renewals for the second year. For more information, see Suzie's Farm website.
About four years ago, the Olsons set up a "U-pick/CSA Member Program," and now reserve the u-pick experience for farm CSA members. The price of membership is a case of Gabriel Farm's organic juice. For $36, customers get three gallons of juice and the ability to pick and purchase whatever is in season. Once they had the membership program established, Lucy and Torrey felt comfortable in opening up the U-Pick options to their full range of crops - from apples, pluots, berries, Asian Pears, tomatoes and flowers in August through persimmons and pineapple guavas in November.
Membership in the U-pick CSA program at Gabriel Farm averages about 500 families. A membership is good for a family or for a group of four people. Most customers are families with young children who want their children to learn where their food comes from and to be able to experience the farm. Most drive an hour or two from the greater San Francisco Bay Area. Lucy and Torrey are happy with their program. They have found that most people who make the membership commitment are supportive, kind and respectful of the farm.
Most U-Pick CSA members only come out to the farm once a year, as they are very busy people, Lucy explained, although she encourages all members to experience the apple harvest at least once if they start in a different season. Turnover in the program is about 80 percent, but enough new members join each year to maintain the average membership numbers.
The Olsons are not trying to grow their U-Pick program. They tried a hay pyramid one year for the children to play on, but decided that they didn't want to be in the agri-tainment business and did not repeat the experiment. They plan to continue to use the U-Pick membership program to limit the number of customers and to make more of a connection with people who enjoy and respect Gabriel Farm. For more information, see gabrielfarm.com/portal/u-pick