Evolution of the U-pick
May/June 2011 California Country magazine
Story by Ching Lee
Photos by Paolo Vescia and Sarah Lee
Visitors who pick their own food find fun in a country setting
Santa Cruz County farmer Nita Gizdich, center, with her son Vincent and his wife Cynthia, has been opening her farm to patrons and allowing them to pick their own fruit for nearly 45 years. U-pick farms like Gizdich Ranch are enjoying a resurgence of interest and becoming unique tourist destinations for families seeking food and fun in a country setting.
Longing for the pastoral surroundings of a farm and to harvest the sun-kissed bounty of the land, urban and suburban residents are increasingly flocking to the countryside for a chance to stroll through the fields and pick their own produce.
It is no wonder that so-called U-pick farms have become unique tourist destinations today and are enjoying a resurgence of interest by way of the "foodie" or "locavore" movement, as consumers visit local farms to get to know their farmer and where food comes from.
Strawberry pickers Gary and Lela Hartley, with daughter Michelle, of Cupertino fill their buckets with fruit.
The experience may well be a novelty for some patrons, but for Santa Cruz County farmer and U-pick veteran Nita Gizdich, the idea of giving people access to her farm and fruits of labor has been a longtime tradition of Gizdich Ranch (www.gizdich-ranch.com), which has been operating in Watsonville for nearly 75 years, 44 of those as a U-pick.
She and her husband Vince originally started letting people onto their farm to ensure a home for their olallieberries, a close relative of blackberries. When the price of the berries and other commodities fell, farmers in their situation were forced to find new and creative ways to market their products.
Emily Smith, 13, of Granite Bay shows off some fresh-picked berries.
"My husband said, ‘Just make some signs. We'll put them out on the highway and people will come and pick the berries,'" she said. "So I made the signs and it took about three days before people saw them and realized what 'Pik-Yor-Sef' meant."
Back in those days, her customers were usually homemakers with their children in tow coming out to pick huge volumes of fruit—50, 60 pounds at a time. They'd go home and can the berries, freeze them or make pies and jams.
The U-pick business was bustling for the first 17 years, Gizdich said. But then it hit rock bottom.
"I thought, ‘Gee, the housewife is not coming,'" Gizdich said. "We got to talking to her, and then we caught on: The housewife was too busy. She had to go to work."
Gizdich listened to her customers and tried to adapt to the changing times. For example, the farm began selling already-picked fruit for customers pressed for time and frozen berries during the offseason. It also began growing an assortment of berries and different apple varieties because customers were asking for them.
Over the years, the farm went through a number of transformations, adding an antique store, pie shop, gift shop, sales barn, juice room, apple shed and picnic area.
Gizdich said the crowds are now back, but they're coming for a different reason.
"It's more of a family outing now—entertainment for the whole family," she said. "The husband is now joining in, whereas years ago, it was always the housewife and children. Now we see the entire family, sometimes even grandma and grandpa with their daughter and the grandkids."
Brianda Delgadillo displays one of many varieties of pies from Gizdich Ranch’s pie shop.
Penny Leff, agritourism coordinator for the University of California Small Farm Program, said today's U-pick customers tend to look to the farm as a getaway from their urban life or as an educational opportunity for their children who may have never been on a farm.
"Now it's more about the experience," she said. "They're picking smaller quantities and wanting more things to do, and it's more for fun than putting the kids to work picking fruit."
Gizdich said these days her customers are more inclined to pick a small crate of berries for eating, and then buy a pie on their way out. They are also conscientious about buying local and want to know about the farm and how the crops are produced, she said.
Responding to the changing times, Gizdich Ranch has expanded beyond the U-pick idea by offering plenty of outdoor activities for the whole family.
"You've got to be there to answer those questions," she said, "because that's what they want to hear—that you are raising that product."
Christina Smith, who lives near Sacramento in Granite Bay, said she and her family were vacationing in Santa Cruz a few years ago and discovered Gizdich Ranch when they were looking for something to do besides going to the beach.
With a 5-year-old son and a teenage daughter, Smith said it is always a challenge to find something that everybody in the family likes to do. Since they all love food, hiking and being outdoors, the U-pick seemed the perfect fit. She said her children loved the experience so much she plans to make Gizdich Ranch a yearly event and can't wait to go back for more pie.
"It's just a sweet little spot," Smith said. "We sort of made it into a whole afternoon. It just ended up being a really great activity for the whole family."
Leff, of the Small Farm Program, said while U-pick farms may be gaining popularity as entertainment attractions, they are not necessarily growing in number. In fact, a recent survey of California farms involved in agritourism found that U-picks are often less profitable than other small-farm operations and more likely to close.
Because the farms are open to the public, U-picks have more liability issues, she said. That's why so many of them offer berries, because the plants are closer to the ground and patrons don't have to use ladders.
U-picks also require staffing, Gizdich noted, and, depending on what they're doing, must comply with certain regulations and meet health and sanitation codes. Plus, people are not buying the volumes they used to, Leff added, and patrons sometimes damage the plants or eat as much as they pay for, all of which take a toll on a farmer's bottom line.
"But I know people enjoy U-picks and the farmers who run them do it as sort of a labor of love," she said.
Gizdich said even with the downturn in the economy, people continue to come out to her farm, which is now in its fourth generation, with son Vincent III, his wife Cynthia and their sons Vincent IV and Noah carrying the torch. Her customers may be spending less money at the antique store and gift shop, she said, but they're still filling their tummies with fresh fruit and pie.
"It's been a wonderful life for us here," Gizdich said. "We're still happy that we did this. If we hadn't opened up our farm to the public years ago, we probably wouldn't be here today."
Ching Lee is a reporter for California Country. She can be reached at 800-698-FARM or email@example.com.
Take your pick
U-pick farms offer a wide variety of products. Ron Kelley, who operates R. Kelley Farms in Sacramento County, specializes in fresh Southern peas.
California farmers grow literally hundreds of different crops to fill the world's food basket. Many of those crops can be found in U-pick farms throughout the state. There are the perennial favorites such as apples, berries, pumpkins and various stone fruits. But a number of farms also offer U-pick crops that are a little less traditional, including summer and winter vegetables, heirloom tomatoes, herbs, flowers, grapes, persimmons, pomegranates, citrus fruits, chestnuts, figs and mushrooms.
At R. Kelley Farms in Sacramento County (www.rkelleyfarms.com), customers come out every year to pick vegetables that are particularly hard to find fresh. Farmer Ron Kelley, who has been operating the U-pick for nearly 20 years, specializes in growing black-eyed peas, purple hull peas and crowder peas. He also grows green beans, speckled butter beans, garbanzo beans and cranberry beans, as well as tomatoes, okra, sweet corn, peppers, squash, cucumbers and several types of sweet melons.
The farm attracts customers from all over, including visitors from Fiji, one of whom identified herself as Mrs. Singh, left, and Premila Wati, right.
A seed company manager by day and an experienced pest control advisor, Kelley has been working with farmers his entire career and decided to try his hand at farming to earn some extra money. He said he decided to grow a selection of fresh Southern peas because no other U-pick farm in Northern California was offering them and he knew they were popular with certain ethnic groups.
"It was just a niche I felt I could fill," he said.
The advantage of being a U-pick, he noted, is that he didn't have to invest in expensive equipment to get into farming, although he now has some equipment that includes a pea sheller.
"People are paying you to harvest your crop, rather than you paying somebody else to do it. I think that's pretty unique," said Kelley.
Also, U-pick customers have the option of picking what they want and how ripe they want their crop. Want to make fried green tomatoes? Need a large zucchini for baking? What about extra-ripe tomatoes for sauces? Kelley has them all.
For a list of U-pick farms, go to www.pickyourown.org. In addition, the California Agricultural Tourism Directory at www.calagtour.org provides information on U-picks and other agritourism sites throughout the state.