Differing approaches in the same market
These days, many farmers are diversifying to stay in business. Cutting risks and increasing the odds of success have come to mean avoiding specialization in the production of just one crop. However, Sam Race, of H.A. Race and Son, is staying true to what he does best: growing strawberries. Nearby, the Sussex County Strawberry Farm is taking a different approach, adding a garden center as well as pick-your-own raspberries and pumpkins, to keep customers returning all year.
Both farms remain focused on their main crop of pick-your-own strawberries. Located in the northwestern region of New Jersey, in two neighboring counties still known for their agricultural bases, they are arguably competing for the same base of local customers and day-trippers from nearby urban locales. Located approximately 45 miles from New York City, and along the Route 80 corridor, they have developed vastly different approaches to attracting customers for the same primary activity: picking strawberries.
It was during the post-World War II years when H.A. Race and Son began its transformation from a dairy farm. Some vegetable and fruit crops were added to bring in extra income. After a few seasons, the family settled on strawberries as an exclusive crop. Growing from 4 acres of strawberries to 15 acres, the cows were gradually replaced by pickers, and the dairy barn gave way to housing barracks, which provided a place for the workers to stay during the three to four-week picking season.
“We went into it in a big way,” says Sam Race, the “Son” mentioned in the name. Now retired from the New Jersey Department of Agriculture (NJDA), Race carries on the tradition of strawberry growing that began when he was a small child.
“Occasionally we would have more than we could pick. Then we’d advertise you-pick. It sounded like a good way to go,” Race says.
Pick-your-own went over exceedingly well. The farm eventually stopped hiring pickers and opened all the fields for pick-your-own. They’ve been counting on their customers to pick what they plant for over 50 years, and the format has enabled the farm to stay productive through changing times. When he took over the business, Race was able to continue running the farm while employed off-farm for many years.
“I kept on growing strawberries on a strictly pick-your-own basis,” Race says, with only a couple of acres in production during his years of employment with the NJDA. After his 2001 retirement, he increased production to 5 acres of strawberries each season. The remainder of the farm is planted in grasses, much of which is utilized as straw to mulch the berries.
“I do all the work growing them and selling them. The only way we can manage it is pick-your-own,” Race explains.
Nearby, at the Sussex County Strawberry Farm, partners Gary Post and John Wolters have developed their own pick-your-own strawberry following. Over the past decade, they have also cultivated a garden shop, fall raspberry and pumpkin picking patches and child-friendly play areas alongside the acres of strawberries. While none of these operations quite overshadow the farm’s 15 acres of strawberries, they do keep customers returning much of the year.
“We’ve branched out from the strawberries to keep us going,” Wolters says of the other activities and products now offered for sale.
The farm itself, which consists of 20 acres, has about 200 rhubarb plants to complement the strawberries. Fall raspberries, just .25 acre, and pick-your-own pumpkins, which the partners grow themselves on rented land nearby, keep their base of pick-your-own customers returning in fall.
The recently added greenhouses, where they grow their own vegetable flats but purchase in the flowers, has been the fastest growing segment of the farm. Bagged mulch products, along with the recently expanded Amish-made furniture line, attract other customers, who never would venture out into the fields. To accommodate these clients, a small percentage of strawberries are pre-picked and offered for sale in a small market stand set up near the sales area.
This farm also began life as a dairy. Post’s father began planting vegetables, then ultimately the strawberries, as the dairy industry in New Jersey suffered severe decline in the 1960s. By the 1970s, acres of pick-your-own strawberries replaced grazing dairy cows. Customers came from near and far to spend each spring picking the first fruits of the season.
Making a short season work
This short-season crop doesn’t give much of a window for profitable selling. Race’s harvest season typically begins the third week of May and ends in mid-June. It also means that Race passes most of the season peacefully, without the crowds and commotion such operations can bring.
At H.A. Race and Son, it’s strawberries, pure and simple. Pick them and take them home. The stand is simple and old-fashioned. Cast-off desks, the big metal kind, pushed together make a nice counter. The stand is in one of the old farm buildings, cement floors and open air, and maybe a piece of large equipment sheltered off to the side. It tends to be quiet, even on busy weekends. It’s a place to contemplate the beauty of the surrounding mountains and woodlands that border the fields, while taking home the freshest berries possible.
“The people always get the best strawberries. The first and the best, always,” Race says, since none are set aside for any other purpose.
Over at the Sussex County Strawberry Farm, the season starts a bit later—they are north of Race’s—and typically runs for the month of June. Here, customers drive past the garden center area and down the dirt road to the fields. They report to one of the sheds, where they’ll find a quart basket and instructions on what is ripe and where to go to pick it.
“It’s become a three-day business,” Wolters says. “But strawberries ripen every day. We have to have good weather in June. If it rains Friday, Saturday or Sunday, that can be devastating to us, because these berries don’t get picked.”
Even though bad weather during prime picking days can result in a lot of crop loss, the cost of hiring pickers and staffing other sales outlets would be daunting. So it remains pick-your-own here, too.
To help attract customers during the weekdays, they keep the fields open until 8 p.m. Wolters knows that a lot of his loyal customers grew up picking berries at the farm as children. Their parents have retired and moved away, and they themselves are now busy in the workforce.
“You can’t not accommodate them,” Wolters says of the families where both parents work, typically having to commute out of the area.
Although the farms have taken differing routes in supplementing the income from the strawberries, both have similar approaches to the berries themselves. Keeping pricing reasonable—after all, the customers are doing the picking, the product never leaves the farm until it is sold, and the labor needs for sales are negligible—is the key to both operations. With a steady customer base, built over the years, both farms offer quality and value as their main business philosophies.
“We provide a good product at a very reasonable price,” Wolters says. “We have a huge customer base. It’s always been a pick-your-own business. It’s just a two-person operation, and without hiring others and incurring excessive labor costs, that is just the only way to keep growing berries.”
Race says, “We have a very good customer base. We keep the prices as low as we can. Most of the work is done by me. I keep the workload as low as possible.” Race sells to nearby farmers, but the catch is that the farmers have to pick their own berries, too, alongside the regular customers, although Race gives them a discount off the retail pricing.
Both farmers agree that extending the pick-your-own strawberry season by using everbearing varieties just doesn’t work. Wolters tried planting everbearers for a few years, but there was no demand. Race had a similar experience. Customers lose interest in strawberries once school is out, and their attention is drawn to blueberries, summer produce, raspberries and trips to the Jersey shore, they say.
Cultivating the crop
Both farms grow the berries in much the same way. Irrigation is a necessity, and both utilize sprinkler irrigation systems. The overhead irrigation is critical, as frosts affect both farms numerous times during a typical season.
“We’re in the lowest part, and when there is no wind, it (frost) settles,” Wolters explains. They use the sprinklers roughly nine to 16 times each season, primarily for frost protection, although it is also important that the berries have adequate moisture when fruiting. It’s the same at H.A. Race and Son, where the sprinklers get used four to six times each season to protect against frost.
Both farms plant the berries in narrow rows, on a three to four-year rotation. After four years, production is down and new plants are needed. Berries are planted in April, using a mechanical transplanter. The farms each have about seven to eight varieties of berries, and both start the season with Earliglow and end it with Eros.
Wolters and Post handpick the blossoms in the establishment year. Preventing fruiting, Wolters says, helps to promote vigor and results in better production in following years. Race feels that suppression of the blossoms is “very time-consuming and not cost- effective,” so he has stopped the practice.
Straw is the mulch of choice, and is grown and used at both farms. It provides winter protection, retains moisture during the growing season, prevents weed growth and keeps berries clean and off the ground. A heavy layer of winter mulch is thinned by hand each spring, when it is raked off the plant beds. Both farms opt for hand removal with hoes, rather than risking soil compaction if machinery is used for this task. The grass grown at H.A. Race and Son is a Sudan and sorghum hybrid. Sudan grass and rye is grown at the Strawberry Farm.
Hoeing controls weeds along the rows, along with some chemical herbicides. Fungicides are a necessity for both farms to protect against gray mold. Birds and deer are the main pests. Some loss is to be expected each season, and is a part of the business. Plant runners are cut off, and rows are kept 6 to 8 inches wide as the fields are cultivated.
By knowing the needs of their own farm while meeting the needs of their customers, they thrive in an area where many farms also offer a small patch of strawberries to tempt in customers early in the season, but these two farms are known as strawberry farms, and loyal customers return each spring, bypassing other establishments.
“It’s very hard to make a profit with pick-your-own strawberries,” Race says. “ I think that’s why the competition goes away.”
The competition may have gone away, but the customers are still returning to H.A. Race and Son and the Sussex County Strawberry Farm generation after generation, seeking strawberries from farmers who have built their reputations and businesses on these berries.
The author is a new freelance contributor based in New Jersey.