A man went into a doctor’s office for a check up. He was told to "strip to the waist". So he did. He took off his shoes, socks and pants! ... Now this may not have much to do with the berry business, but it does make a point. There are many ways to do something or grow and sell blueberries, blackberries raspberries, grapes and figs. Some ways are better than others but it is rare when there is only one way! We would like to share with you the way we grow and market berries at the Happy Berry. Perhaps from our mistakes and successes you can improve your opportunities. Is it sustainable? We will let you be the judge!
The Happy Berry (circa 1979) is located about 25 miles west of Greenville, 8 miles south of Pickens, 13 miles north of Clemson, and 9 miles east of Seneca on a small peninsula surrounded by Lake Keowee. Higher ridges back the peninsula. The theory behind the location is that cold air flows off the mountains some 15 miles across the valley, pushes the warm air up off the lake and temporarily traps the warm air within the surrounding ridge before the cold air finally pushes over the ridge in the early morning hours. We have never had a complete wipeout from freeze, but we have had frost damage in several different years.
The population of our home county- Pickens County- is 110,000 plus and the population of the greater Greenville area is over 3/4 of a million. Our county is a growing bedroom community of Greenville. We are located on a dead end road leading to a boat landing and summer vacation area of Lake Keowee. On the lake are 110 plus communities with lots of retirees. We are 0.9 miles off Route 183, which is slated to become a 4-lane highway in the next 10 years. Route 183 is a gathering artery, if you are heading west, to route people around the lake. The lake, which is about 1/2 mile from the farm, is about 25 miles from one end to the other covering 18,300 acres with a crossing in the middle. The lake is pristine and local groups like the Friends of Lake Keowee Society actively promote conservation to prevent physical [erosion etc], chemical [septic nutrients etc] and biological [invasive species] pollution in the watershed.
The farm is 13.5 acres, plus another 3.5 acres added by our youngest daughter in 2005, located on steeply sloped, highly erodible Hiawassee series soil. The area was totally planted with cotton during the wood depression days of the late 1800's and early 1900's. What was left in 1979, when we started The Happy Berry, after a 30-to-70 year abandonment was a highly variable mosaic that ranges from dead sand to clay with high organic loam at the bottom of the hills. The residual pH is 4.7 to 5.2, which will drop to 3.9 or 4.0 with just a couple of applications of ammonium sulfate. Forests surround the farm. We anticipate that urban development will surround it in the future.
It is our goal to provide a fun and educational experience for all ages. We want to contribute to healthier lifestyles and eating habits. And ultimately, our belief is that local farms like ours provide an essential environmental service for the future of our planet. To do that, we have a "triple bottom line": environmental, social and economic. In order to make sure the business of farm supports our environmental goals we have what we call an Environmental Management System. For more on how we intend to make a positive social impact, check out our Ten Reasons To Buy Local. And of course, if we are not economically viable - all the rest would disappear. Below you will finds a description of our operation, our goals, production methods (and how they have changed over the years), marketing and finally plant heath issues.
To us the most important aspect of any business is having a GOAL. If you don't know where you are going, it doesn't make any difference how you get there.... and you can waste a lot of time going nowhere. A goal has two parts. It has a quantity or quality statement and it has a time statement of when that quantity or quality will be completed. The initial goal of The Happy Berry was to provide for our oldest daughter's education between the fall of 1986 and the spring of 1991.
Our current goal is to pay for our next daughter's education and to provide for retirement employment for my wife and I. Sub-objectives under those global goals were not to be in debt and to increase our net worth while accomplishing these goals. Our current objective is to gross $1,000 a day for 100 days a year. We were a long way from it for many years but we are making progress and approaching that goal in 2005. We could have invested in the stock market or something else but we had no knowledge, desire or experience. What we, Walker and Ann, do know about and have experience in is horticulture and plant health and poultry respectively.
Limitations, or other goals that we believed should limit our operation, were that we were both employed full time off the farm [Walker retired in 2000], that we maintain a cohesive family unit and that we continue to develop our home. In the early years of the farm, we were able to pay for our oldest daughter's education through a well-deserved salary earned working on the farm, that she was able to combine with student loans and working while at school. We have helped a little but without further borrowing. We own the farm and equipment free and clear except for a small operational loan each spring. We keep coming up with emergencies that use up set aside operational capital each year. We both have made reasonable progress in our jobs (Walker serves on the board of several community service or support local agriculture organizations since retirement) and we believe we have a cohesive family. Both our girls are super in school or work and are tremendous workers, of which, we are extremely proud.
If we have failed, it's in the development of our home. My sister, who used to be in the real estate business, says that you should invest $75/month in either labor or materials to just maintain a home. With the effort expended on the farm since 1979, when we started, that put us $9,000 down plus the interest through 1989, just for maintenance, let alone any enhancements we might have made which increased the amount. To bring things back to our standard of living it took a loan of $40,000 plus interest. This cycle repeated it self again in 2005 with another $15,000 investment in our home.
Goals are "not cast in concrete". They are flexible and should be changed as the business environment changes and as your family or personal situation changes. We are wrestling right now with what should be our goals for the future. We want to create an opportunity for our daughters. Are they too ambitious or not ambitious enough as stated above? The point of all this is that resources are finite. We had an unused resource or an opportunity. We did not correctly inventory available resources adequately. If we were to give any advice it would be to carefully match your goals to your available resource. I can tell you it is difficult… we are “still pressing the envelope.”
Our sales strategy is that direct marketing is the primary market and that chain stores are secondary. Because the literature indicates ready-picked on-farm sales are increasing and to support chain store sales we added an 8 ft x 10 ft walk-in cooler in 1988 ($400 from a local liquor store). In 1996 it cost another $1500 for compressor repair and conversion. We sold our berries for $1.00/pound u-pick and $10/gallon (approx. 6 lb) we pick till 1995. In 1996, we went to $1.25/pound u-pick with no complaints and $14 per gallon we pick. In 2003 we went to 1.50 per pound and $16 per gallon. Many sell for less, one sells for more in the area around us (60 miles). Surveys of our clients tell us price is not a factor as long as they feel it's fair -- therefore, we are not gouging them. Our price in 1989 and 1991 was $14/lug delivered to the chain store warehouse. In 2000 Chain stored delivered lugs were $18. If there are no takers at $18 we let berries drop to the ground if we were not keeping up with direct sales. Today, 2005, that base price is $21/ 12-pint lug. That has not been a problem for several years as direct marketing is keeping up with production. Our price is fair, based on volumes we have been able to move and our cost of production. Anyone doing less is probably consuming their equity and doomed to fail.
We start picking blackberries the 30th of May, blueberries the 15 to 20 th of June and our last sale in some years is around September 27. We hit our peak about the 1st through the 18th of July. We keep the grass close clipped (hard on fescue) and resort to hand weeding if we have to keep the place well manicured. The clients tell us that it's worth the extra money they pay us. We have picnic tables. We provide cold water, even carry it out to them while they are harvesting if we are not to busy.
We provide a free recipe book to all who would like them. We provided a brochure made up by the "Foothills Direct Market Association" of other direct marketing growers, including our competition until they ceased to function. When it comes to marketing there are two aspects. One is how big is the pie, and the other is how big is your slice. Our experience is that the size of the pie is much more important than how big is our slice. We are dealing in a product, which our surveys of clients in the 1980’s told us that less than l% of new clients had ever eaten a fresh blueberry before. To this end we play an active part in our local direct marketing organization. In 1989 & 1990 I was the president. My wife did the brochure for the organization for many years. She was on the board of directors for several years. Lack of leadership both within the organization and from Extension has led to discontinuing the directory in 1994. In 2006 we are members of Carolina Farm Stewardship Association (CFSA) and Walker serves on the Board. We are members of Discover Upcountry Carolina (DUCA) and Walker serves on the Board. We are members of Heritage Corridor Farmers Association (HCFA) and walker serves on the board and finally we are members of Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project (ASAP) South Carolina Direct Marketing Association (SCDMA). All of these organizations, in one fashion or another support Ag tourism. We have found that 38 % plus of our business is non-locals. Many vacation in the area.
We pick in a wave across the farm. All rows are numbered and many labeled as to variety. We do not request that they pick a bush clean. They are taken to a particular bush that is at the head of the pack and told that when the person behind finishes they will get on the bush in front of them and so-on. They will play leapfrog down the row. We instruct on how to tell if a berry is ripe, encouraging sampling till they get it right. We talk about plumpness and how sensitive fingers can tell when they are plump (ripe) and when not to pull them off the bush. An experienced sales person knows when to keep the wave moving or when to slow it down. The important thing is that the customer leaves with the best quality product.
We start our advertising about the 10 days before opening. In 1988 and 1989 we had 5 billboards for 2 months that cost $2500 plus paper costs. In 1990 we had 3 billboards and the company did a lousy job. In 1991 we had 3 boards with a new company. Paper costs work out to about $300 per year for just 2 colors. We have not used billboards since 1992 but believe it is effective. This is supplemented with weekly newspaper coupons (free pound). We put the initials of the paper in each add and keep track of which ones we get the best response from. In future years we increased the size in better response papers. We leverage the adds in local news papers and more recently tourism magazines into feature articles about our operation. The tourism ads (3 to $500) and articles are done during the winter and are a little risky. They cannot be done at the last moment when you see you have ample crop. We have an "army" of road signs that we put up each year. Most locations are rented one way or another. We are very concerned about federal, state and county sign laws. Our customers tell us the signs are extremely important. We work through the associations above to get the state into doing way finding sign for farm tourists.
We have a computer and operate a database (PC File for many years and now Access) to manage the mailing list. Currently the database is about 4,125 strong and has been purged by "address correction requests". We use to get a reduced postal rate by bar coding and sorting for the post office. The US Postal Service restructured rates in a way that now discriminate against small businesses like ours so we use first class stamps. Our objective is to build the database to 10,000. We make one or two surface mailings during the season. We should probably do more. We use to distribute flyers in local stores within a 15-mile radius. We now do Brochures ($450/3000) at other local tourist attractions, state and county parks and local museums. We have participated in Christmas parades. We took three first places and one honorable mention. We also compete for farming awards. We won the county and the state of SC conservation award. We have been on PM Magazine's TV program and several others. We have been able to luck up on a feature article about us in one newspaper or another virtually every year. Marketing is our single biggest expense.
We have a website: www.TheHappyBerry.com. The web site has a coupon, prepicked ordering capability, directions, recipes, a little advocacy on buying local, archived newsletters, weather button, a vacation button, information on our management and a few pictures. When we started, our initial site was hosted through another provider's website: www.innova.net/~hberry. Innova Communications, a local Internet provider, originally sponsored the site. The owners were customers at the farm before they moved to another enterprise. They truly gave us a jump and enabled us to find out how important a web site is. We have moved from them to using Netsonic as our service provider and own website: www.thehappyberry.com. We get a lot of prepicked orders from the site and we get a lot of coupons that come from the site. We know it is working for us. We have 1350 email subscribers to our newsletter.