U-Pick Blueberry Farm Pre-Production Partnership Income

Project Overview

FNC04-534
Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2004: $6,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2005
Matching Non-Federal Funds: $8,675.00
Region: North Central
State: Missouri
Project Coordinator:

Commodities

  • Fruits: berries (other)
  • Animals: bees

Practices

  • Crop Production: fertigation
  • Education and Training: farmer to farmer
  • Farm Business Management: new enterprise development, budgets/cost and returns, marketing management, risk management
  • Pest Management: mulches - killed, physical control, prevention
  • Soil Management: soil analysis
  • Sustainable Communities: new business opportunities

    Summary:

    To create an income for a U-pick blueberry operation during the pre-production years by allowing individuals to buy into the operation. Partners would be allowed to pick a set amount of berries at a reduced rate for the first five years that the plants are in production.

    PROJECT BACKGROUND
    We have a small (1/2 acre) U-pick blueberry farm that we just started in 2005 and a small beekeeping operation of approximately 40 colonies. I have been keeping honeybees for about 8 years. We have about 10 colonies at our house and about 30 colonies scattered at various other locations in the county that provide “free” pollination to many farms and gardens located near them. As a community service, I also remove swarms of honeybees, hornet’s nests, and yellow jacket nests when contacted by those who are not sure what to do with their stinging insects.

    PROJECT DESCRIPTION AND RESULTS
    1. The objective of my project is to test an idea to create an income for a U-pick blueberry farm during the pre-production years.
    2. My secondary objective was to provide an additional location for consumers to pick blueberries in this area.

    I started this project off with a lot of excitement when I received the news I had received the grant. My first hope was to locate enough customers who were willing to prepurchase their blueberries that I could offset some of the start-up costs of the berry farm. To this end I began developing the questionnaire that I would later use to help me locate people interested in “prepurchasing” blueberries. (A copy of the questionnaire is located at the end of this report.) The idea was for people to complete the questionnaire, return it to me and I would use the data from the questionnaires to help best meet the desire of potential customers.

    I would also have a ready customer list to contact when the berries were ready to pick and I would be able to begin generating revenue from the berry farm the same year I planted the bushes. I ran my basic questionnaire past the State of Missouri Dept. of Agriculture Marketing person. She gave me some ideas to improve the questionnaire. One area of concern that I had with the project was whether to sell all the berries from a plant or to sell a set number of pounds. I initially had gone with the idea of sell all of the berries from a bush but I later decided that this would not be fair since some bushes produce much more than others. With that settled I continued to work on the project by getting the advertisements ready.

    I had discussed the proposal before I wrote the grant application with a couple of store owners where I sell honey about having people bring the ads to their stores to register for the gift card drawing that would be from their store. However, when I began the actual process and I talked with the storeowners again one of them didn’t want me to do this unless I could guarantee “organic” blueberries. I was not sure I wanted to do this so I didn’t select their store. Then the other storeowner said she didn’t want to do this because one of her employees owned a blueberry farm and didn’t want competition. I then decided to have the questionnaires returned to me at a local fall harvest festival where I had a beekeeping booth. I thought that would give me a chance to answer questions that might come up face to face with potential customers.

    That turned out to be a big failure. Very few people brought their questionnaire’s to the fall harvest festival and I had not put an address to mail them so I actually had more people register by completing the questionnaire at the fall harvest festival that those who brought them to the festival from the papers. One of those people who completed the questionnaire at the fall harvest festival was in law school. He asked me some very good questions and I didn’t have answers for all of the questions. This information was very useful in developing the contracts. It helped me to address some of the “what ifs” that could happen with the berry farm. We decided that any future questionnaires would have a mail in address for entry. One good thing that did happen was we did get an interview from a local paper about the project and they came to the fall harvest festival and took my picture with a bowl of frozen blueberries. My wife helped me with entering the questionnaires into our database and my children helped me with the drawing the winners of the gift cards.

    The planting portion of the project started out with the basic information I had gained from talking with several blueberry growers from across the state of Missouri. I had taken their advice and I ordered 9 different varieties of blueberries knowing that some would do well in my field and other would need to be replaced. I had worked out an arrangement with my neighbor to get my field ready for the blueberries so I could plant them in the fall. However the weather was very dry in late summer of 2004 and it was dry on into the fall as well. Finally we got some rain and the soil loosened up enough to plow it up. Unfortunately it kept on raining and it was then too wet to disk up the field and form the raised rows.

    We acquired the berry bushes around the Thanksgiving holiday weekend of 2004. This was an experience picking up the bushes and bringing them home. Since the field was not ready we unloaded the bushes and set them in the yard until spring. In December of 2005 I contacted a local irrigation specialist recommended by some of the other blueberry growers and he helped me design the irrigation system. With the irrigation system in my shed I began working on plans to get another round of questionnaires started.

    The second round of questionnaires went much better than the first. I received more interest than the first time and I began sending out contracts. I was nearly done with the contracts when I presented my project information to the blueberry growers association at their annual meeting in Springfield, Missouri. There were about 12 growers at the meeting. Those who were there were intrigued with the idea of preselling the crop. They asked what price I was charging for those who were prepurchasing and then several of them told me that was less than what they had been selling the for this season. With the idea of those who were prepurchasing the crop of getting a discount from the rest of the purchasers I realized that I still needed to make a profit for all 5 years. I realized that for a 5-year contract that I probably should raise the prices for the prepurchasing so I did for the last round of advertising.

    Finally in March of 2005, the ground was dry enough to be worked, but my neighbor was in Washington D.C. for a 6 month job that he had happened into. He had talked with his son about getting the field ready and how to do it. This was quite a project since his son was a sheet metal worker and not a farmer. It took us nearly all afternoon but we got the field disked and then disked up into raised rows with a regular disk. This saved the expense of purchasing a levy plow. The rows ended up a couple of feet closer together than I had planned so I ended up with a couple of extra rows. This will provide some room for expansion as I can afford to purchase more bushes. Then began the earnest task of planting the blueberries.

    I planted the first 200 by myself. Then some people from my church came out and helped me plant the rest of the bushes and install the irrigation system. It was a long and trying day since none of us had installed an irrigation system but it came together. I learned that on cold days it is much easier to put the pieces together if they are placed in warm water before you try to insert the tubing into the fittings. Unfortunately, I didn’t figure this out until I was nearly done with the system.

    We were able to get the system together and leak test it so we could bury it. It was a real comfort to have the bushes in the ground and the irrigation system going. The spring progressed and the bushes blossomed and began forming berries. However, I still had to get the mulch down. I had talked with an electric company earlier in the spring and told them I could use all of the mulch they could bring. However, they never did bring any mulch. I was able to get one load of mulch from a contractor working on my neighbor’s trees. This put me in a bind so I began getting shavings from a stave mill about an hour away. I used a cyclone rake system to blow the shavings into the back of the truck and also to unload the truck back at the field. It seemed to go much faster than loading the truck by hand and the people at the mill seemed to think it was one of the most ingenious ways they had seen to load the material.

    It was a dusty job and it took about an hour to drive there, an hour to load the truck, an hour to drive back, another hour to unload the truck and about 2 hours to spread the mulch. This was something that I had not planned to spend so much time and gasoline doing. I made nearly 20 trips to the mill to get the shavings and it was beginning to tell on the plants. We received 2.1 inches of rain in May and June combined. This forced me to use the irrigation system much more than I had planned. Not knowing how much to run the system I ended up running it too little. This caused a lot of stress on the bushes and I began watering those that looked dry in addition to running the irrigation system.

    Things still looked pretty good as we had a small crop of berries on the plants. I went to Colorado in June for a business trip of about 11 days. I had hoped to return to fresh blueberries but the robins had other plans. I returned to find that the robins had eaten nearly the entire crop. It is a concern to wonder if I have enough bushes so that the birds can have some berries and there will still be enough berries for the customers.

    We continued to water the bushes and as June began to pass into July it was clear that some of our free help planting the berries had placed some of the berries too far from the irrigation drips and we were loosing plants. This lesson of not planting the bushes until the irrigation line is in one that I am glad was not more costly than it was. Then on July 4 at about 5:00 AM as I went outside to turn off the irrigation system I realized that there were long horn cows in my field of blueberries. Thankfully, they only stepped on a few bushes and didn’t really eat any of them. The cows did eat some of the weeds that were growing up the mulch and into the blueberry rows. The weeds were more of a problem that I had anticipated. They grew well despite the limited rain and to my surprise they grew up from the edge of the mulch and over the top of the blueberries. The weeds did this more at one end of the field than the other and I am still not sure why.

    As we spent hot days weeding the blueberries and pulling weeds from the mulch we also prepared for the final round of advertising. This round gathered about as much interest as the first two combined. We sent out contracts and we only got back about half as many as expected. We are not sure why this was but it was a little disappointing. As we began to pull together the pieces of the project it was clear that we would need a trailer to haul sawdust in a more economical manner and we used the funds that we had saved from not purchasing the levy plow for this. We plan to gather an excess supply of sawdust so that we will have enough to cover up those spots where weeds attempt to grow through the mulch.

    RESULTS
    Advertised to about 60,000 people in four issues of "The Current."
    Advertised to about 30,000 people in the "Missourian."

    122 people responded and of those 11 were interested only in the prize drawings.
    Of those who responded, 75 people were interested in purchasing a combined total of 1,107 pounds of berries. The following list shows the breakdown of how many people were interested in purchasing how many pounds of blueberries.

    NUMBER OF PEOPLE INTERESTED IN PURCHASING A SET AMOUNTS OF BLUEBERRIES

    Blueberries No. of People Interested In Buying
    3 lb: 21
    6 lb: 15
    9 lb: 14
    12 lb: 14
    15 lb: 5
    18 lb: 16
    21 lb: 5
    24 lb: 8

    We have received 11 paid contracts for a total of 99 lbs of berries for a total of $178.74. These contracts are for a period of 5 production seasons for a total of 495 lbs of berries for a price of $893.70. This is not as much as we had hoped to presell. However, it seems like it might be an amount where we can accommodate all of those who prepurchased blueberries in the first production year.

    Some other interesting information the questionnaires revealed was that nearly half of the respondents were willing to pay more for berries if they had access to plumbed restrooms. 80 of the respondents indicated they would prefer having picnic tables at the berry farm as well. Size was the number one issue the respondents desired in the blueberries ahead of taste and color.

    Sunday was the most commonly chosen picking day followed by Friday. Saturday was not on the choice list because of my religious convictions. There were still several respondents that wrote in Saturday on the questionnaire as their most favorable picking day. However, we will still not be open on Saturdays. Overall, the surveys indicated that people would be willing to pick berries any of the first 6 days of the week.

    PROJECT IMPACTS
    We have noticed already that there is interest in blueberries by our neighbors who have been watching us out in the field. None of the ones who have talked to us about the berries have prepurchased, but they are excited about getting fresh berries from someone they know.

    The increase of nearly $180.00 per year for 5 years from what used to be part of our yard and part of a dismal garden is a good return. We hope to increase that to the $2000.00 to $4000.00 that other growers have indicated they gross from similar sized plantings. The wood shavings and sawdust we are using are recycling waste materials back into useful products.

    OUTREACH
    I presented my initial project summary to the Missouri Blueberry Council meeting at the Small Fruit Conference in Springfield, Missouri on February 22, 2005 to about 12 blueberry growers. Many of the growers were intrigued with the ideas and were interested in hearing more about how the project concluded. I subsequently was elected the vice president of the Missouri Blueberry Council, which will give me the opportunity to present additional project information at the 2006 meeting.

    I also presented my final project information at the National Small Farm Conference and Trade Show in Columbia, Missouri on November 3, 2005 to about 36 people. My presentation is to be posted on a website http://agebb.missouri.edu/sustain by Dr. Jose Garcia. There were several reporters there and I was asked a few questions. At this point I don’t know if any information about this project will appear in "Small Farm Today" magazine. An Information Specialist from the University of Missouri Extension office also interviewed me a few days following the Small Farm Conference. Some information about my project was included in the draft article he had me proofread. I am not sure yet how far reaching that document will be.

    I have had some basic information about this project on my beekeeping website for about 12 months. It has had thousands of visitors but I have not received any comments on this page as yet.

    I intend to have a press release issued by the University of Nebraska to the local paper after this final report is submitted. I initially had a press release sent to the local paper when I receive the grant but the local media did not pick up the story.

    PREPURCHASING BLUEBERRIES QUESTIONNAIRE

    Register for a chance to win a $200.00 Wal-Mart gift card by Completing Blueberry Farm Questionnaire

    How many miles would you be willing to drive to pick blueberries?

    ___0-10 ___11-20 ___21-30 ___31-40 ___41-50 ___50+

    Pick 3 of the following possible picking days would best suit your family situation?

    ___Sunday ___Monday ___Tuesday ___Wednesday ___Thursday ___Friday

    What type of restroom facility would you prefer at a berry farm?___Plumbed ___Port-a-Potty

    Would you be willing to pay more for your berries to have access to a restroom with running water? ___Yes ___No

    Would you be interested in having picnic tables available at the berry farm? ___Yes ___No

    Please rate each of (1 most 3 least) the following berry characteristics in order of importance to you.
    ____Flavor ___Color ___Size

    Different varieties of blueberries are better for different uses. How would you intend to use the blueberries you harvest? ___Cooking ___Jams/Jellies ___Freezing

    How would you like to be notified when the blueberries are ready to pick?
    ___postcard ___e-mail ___phone ___other (please specify)_____________________

    Would you be interested in prepurchasing blueberries (at a discounted berry price) for the first 5 years of production?
    ___Yes ___No

    How many pounds of blueberries would you be interested in prepurchasing? (There are approximately 1.5 lb of blueberries per quart)___3 lbs/$6.00 per year
    ___6 lbs /$12.00 per year
    ___9 lbs /$18.00 per year
    ___12 lbs /$24.00 per year
    ___15 lbs /$30.00 per year
    ___18 lbs /$36.00 per year
    ___21 lbs /$42.00 per year
    ___24 lbs /$48.00 per year

    Please PRINT you information below so we can contact you if you are the winner of the gift card. Only one entry per address will be accepted. (We will not sell or rent your information)

    Your Name:____________________________ Your Phone Number: (___)________________
    Address:_________________________________ Your E-mail address:__________________________
    City, State, Zip:______________________________________

    Incomplete or illegible entries will not be entered in our drawing for a $200.00 gift card to Wal-Mart. Please limit one entry per household and/or address. No purchase necessary to win. Drawing will be conducted from valid entries in our possession on September 30, 2005. Not responsible for lost, late or misdirected entries.

    ___Please check this box if you do not want to be notified when our berry farm comes into production.

    Please mail you questionnaires to: Blueberry Farm 3738 HWY 47, Lonedell, MO 63060

    Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.