Dec 2, 2020Interview with Andy Ferguson of Ferguson’s Orchards, Eau Claire, Wisconsin
When Andy Ferguson was still in high school, his parents (Tom and Deb Ferguson) purchased an old apple orchard in western Wisconsin as a complete career shift. They spent 10 years steadily modernizing the operation and adding some agritourism elements. Andy had, meanwhile, gone to college, started law school and worked in a variety of law firms while completing his law degree.
During his last year of law school, Ferguson joined his parents in purchasing a second farm location and decided working on the farm was better than being in a law firm. He completed his last year of law school concentrating on business, contracts, and real estate – all areas which would benefit the farm operation.
Today the Ferguson family collectively, including Andy and wife Ashley, Andy’s brother Joe and his wife Amanda, and their parents Tom and Deb, own five apple orchards and three retail stores in Western Wisconsin and Eastern Minnesota. The farms total roughly 700 acres within a one hour radius of the original farm. One of their methods of expansion is purchasing family orchards or agritourism operations which may not have a next generation of ownership, which also ensures the preservation of farmland.
As the largest commercial apple grower between the Rocky Mountains and Lake Michigan, their family business is now diversified between wholesale apple growing and retail/agritourism. Andy focuses on the agritourism side of the business and business development, his brother maintains the wholesale/commercial growing operation, and his parents are actively involved in running the business as well.
The agritourism operation is open to the public from late August through early November and sees over 125,000 visitors each fall, a number that is growing quickly each year. Centered around apple and pumpkin crops, they have steadily added attractions each year to the different locations to include pumpkin jump pads, cow trains, apple cannons, corn pits, gem mining, corn mazes, adult pedal tractors, farm animals and more, for which they charge a general admission plus extra fees for cannons and gem mining. The bakery operations include apple cider donuts, caramel apples, and other delicious items.
Andy and Ashley have two young girls who are a perfect focus group for new attractions on the farm.
What is one of the biggest challenges you have faced?
Employee retention for our short fall season has been a challenge in previous years. Fortunately, our locations are near colleges, providing a good supply of weekend retail workers. In what is probably a common issue among NAFDMA members, the challenge is employees treating this like a “real job,” not just some weekend work they can feel free to show up for (or not) as they pleased! In 2020, we implemented a thorough employee handbook and day-long training event, as well as separated the operations into various employee departments (bakery, retail, attractions, parking, etc.) so we aren’t asking the same employees to learn all of these various skills. Those measures, plus a new $1/hour bonus paid to those who stayed through the end of the season, worked wonders in 2020 and we were very happy with employee quality, satisfaction and retention.
Name something you are most proud of developing or cultivating in your operation?
Because we charge a general admission to the farm (other than the retail store/bakery), we knew early on we wanted to always make visitors feel like what we offer is worth more than they paid. We try to accomplish that by concentrating on cleanliness, grounds maintenance, and new attractions each year. When visitors express their appreciation for providing a place to make great fall memories with their families, and our employees feel a sense of satisfaction in playing a key role in those memories as well, it is very satisfying to us as owners.
What does NAFDMA mean to you?
We have only been NAFDMA members for a little over a year and have already found it invaluable. While we hope to meet more people and visit similar operations around the country in the future, in the meantime the Facebook group alone has proven a treasure trove of advice, feedback and information. For example, we added sunflowers and a corn pit in 2020, and being able to search previous advice in the group on those topics helped tremendously.
What piece of advice would you give to yourself when you were just starting out?
My advice would be to get out and see other agritourism operations throughout the country, especially those which you aspire to be like. While we ended up in largely the same place today, we probably could have shaved off a lot of time and avoided some lessons in “reinventing the wheel” had we looked more at how other operations had accomplished what we hoped to achieve. Fortunately, this is a never-ending education and there are always farms in other parts of the country that provide great examples of new things, and NAFDMA will prove invaluable to us as we continue to expand.
– Suzi Spahr, Executive Director, NAFDMA Agritourism Association