Sep 4, 2012
Can pilfering PYO pickers be pinched?

Who hasn’t seen someone “sample” the fruit in a pick-your-own stand, or seen kids walk out from the strawberry patch with as many berries on them as they have in the bucket? In some cases, theft in pick-your-own (PYO) blocks has gone to a new level, and some growers have gone to great lengths to put an end to it.

Farms like Soergel Orchards in Wexford, Pa., are diverse. Soergel’s has a market, bakery, deli, wine shop, gift shop, garden center, greenhouses, cider press and a natural foods store. For the owners, the PYO strawberries, blueberries, raspberries and pumpkins are a small part of the business, but really draw families to the location, said Eric Voll, part of the sixth generation of Soergels to run the farm.

“We accept that there will be a lot of berries eaten in the fields and patches by the kids due to photo opportunities, and just kids being kids,” he said. “We want the positive experiences in the fields/patches to result in more loyalty to our business and to give our customers a sense that ‘this is their farm market.’ This theory seems to work for us.”

Many growers have seen kids eating a few berries in the field, but what if theft goes beyond that?

Karen Paulus, owner of Paulus Orchards in Dillsburg, Pa., said theft is something they deal with on a constant basis.

“Unfortunately I have to say yes, theft is an issue on our farm,” she said. “I wish I could say no!”

Paulus sells apples in baskets at her farm stand, from a quart up to a half-bushel. She uses apple baskets with liner bags. She also sells seconds for applesauce and baking. She puts small apples or apples with bruises or small marks in bins and lets people bag their own. She uses drawstring bags for this. She used to use the drawstring bags for her u-pick as well.

“Our u-pick is set up so people come to the cashier and purchase the bags and then fill them up,” she said. “Unfortunately, some people were picking up the bags at the farm stand (for the seconds) and then going out to the trees and filling them up and leaving.”

Now, Paulus uses three different bags for apples: the liners in the baskets for the higher grade apples, the drawstring bag for seconds, and white T-shirt-type bags for the u-pick.

“Last year was the first time doing this, and sure enough, we found some people picking into clear bags so we knew they had not paid the cashier,” she said. “We have also had people bring in plastic grocery bags and sneak them to their cars. We have people bring strollers in and fill up the bottom of the stroller. We’ve had people fill a paid u-pick bag, but empty part of it in their car and go back and fill it again. It’s an ongoing problem that we are working on.”

Paulus also has an employee that walks through the u-pick trees to keep an eye on things and help out customers. She also relies heavily on the kindness of her best customers. Many of the thefts she became aware of were because customers came and told her about it. They are also working on getting all of their u-pick trees in one spot on the farm, and will fence that in.

Having someone in the field is also part of the plan at Strites’ Orchard, Farm Market and Bakery in Harrisburg, Pa. They usually have someone out in the field to assist customers who might forget to pay, said owner Jon Strite.

The bigger theft issue at Strites came from large groups going out and eating the fruit for an hour or so and then coming in with just a small amount, like a pint box, when it came time to pay, Strite said.

“We alleviated this by charging a $2 per-person admission to enter our fields and then subtracting the admission from the final price,” he said. “For example, if a group of 10 people go out, I know I’m going to get at least $20 out of them. Once we explained to our customers why we did this they actually appreciated it. Some of the large group offenders got mad and probably will not be back, but honestly I didn’t want them in the first place.”

Charging an admission, putting up fences and having someone out in the fields and orchards are also part of the plan for Maurice Tougas, owner of Tougas Family Farms in Northboro, Mass. He said the biggest loss is an emotional one.

“The stress that it puts on the family and staff, the loss of trust, and the strain of dealing with the time it takes to deal with the problem makes it a major issue for us,” he said.

Educational opportunity

Another grower has switched how her family handles u-pick, to make it more of an opportunity to interact with customers.

“We handle our u-pick differently then we did just a few years ago,” said Robin Miller, owner of Miller’s Orchards Farm Market in Scott Township, Pa. “We limit the opportunities for theft by being more ‘hands-on.’ By that I mean we use the u-pick as an educational opportunity. One of the family is present with the u-pick folks, educating them about the crop they are picking, talking about how we grow the crop, proper picking, etc.”

Miller said they limit the number of people who get to pick their own fruit, but it keeps the experience more educational and less recreational. So far, the customers seem to appreciate and respect it. Having that respect has made theft less of an issue for them.

Paulus summed up the feeling of most of the growers by saying that sometimes theft is inevitable.

“Ultimately, if they really want to steal from us, they will find a way,” she said. “But I believe that most people are good and are doing the right thing.”

By Derrek Sigler, Assistant Editor





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