Pick-your-own pumpkins farm diversification offers new income stream
The market for pumpkins in the UK has seen a huge growth in the past decade, with the public increasingly looking for an on-farm experience and to buy directly from producers. Pumpkins can offer significant additional income through farm diversification if done well, especially when accompanied by other value-added extras such as refreshments or attractions.
There are two main markets – either selling direct to the consumer or wholesale. Each has its benefits and challenges. When growing for wholesale, there are often extra costs for grading, on-farm storage and transport. The labour-intensive harvest process for wholesale at scale will also need seasonal labour, which can be difficult to find.
Selling direct to consumers poses other challenges, including public access to the farm.
Pumpkin seeds can be planted indoors from mid- to late April, however it is more common to plant seeds and seedlings outdoors from May to early June. Lack of fruit can be an issue and diseases include powdery mildew and grey mould. Pumpkins can also suffer in very wet seasons and may need irrigation during a dry summer.
Will John and Chris Creed, consultants at agricultural adviser Adas, say that the market is becoming saturated in some regions of the UK. However, businesses can still be profitable if they are able to market effectively.
What are the essential requirements and costs?
Mr Creed says: “To be successful, you have got to have infrastructure, hard car parking, booking systems, strong social media campaigns and good road access.”
A potentially less risky option is to grow for an existing business, which may have already invested in the infrastructure to cater for the public.
“Some farm shops and garden centres have very good infrastructures to accommodate the public, but they haven’t got much ground. So they may be able to grow some and then stock up from a local grower, which can be a win-win situation for everybody,” he suggests.
Aside from the elements already mentioned, pick-your-own pumpkin enterprises are likely to need toilet facilities and a building, or a temporary structure.
Online booking systems and card payment machines are likely to also be needed for anything at scale.
Labour requirements can vary, but many established operations need external temporary staff, especially if there are added attractions.
Is it a profitable sector?
Yes, it can be profitable, but there is a lot of competition in some regions. Businesses need to market themselves well, add value and provide an experience for customers.
Mr John says the key is attracting customers in the first place, then generating additional revenue through coffee, cake and other attractions.
This can range from simple offerings, such as seeing the farm animals, face painting and fancy-dress events, to more elaborate attractions such as tractor and trailer rides, trails through haunted woods, a pumpkin cannon and maize mazes.
Most farm diversification advisers stress the importance of good market research, and assessing how well your local market is already served.
They suggest visiting the local competition and farms outside the area to understand what is expected by customers and what works well for the enterprise you are considering.
Is planning permission required for this type of venture?
Typically, planning is not needed for temporary structures such as marquees, however it is for more permanent buildings. It may also be advisable to contact the local highways authority.
Mr John says: “You will need to give consideration to road access. In the past few years, there have been some issues around highways where roads have been blocked.”
Online ticketing systems have helped businesses to regulate time slots when customers arrive, which can reduce traffic and make things much more manageable for everybody, he adds.
What about insurance?
Adequate public liability insurance is crucial when allowing the public to visit a farm.
Inform insurers of any new risks such as a pick-your-own enterprise and associated food and drink sales.
Health and safety should be a key consideration – risk assessments and clear signage will be needed to identify and reduce hazards.
Many sites use ticketing systems and charge a person, family or vehicle.
Entry prices vary significantly, with some offering free entry and simply charging for the pumpkins, while others charge up to £15 a person where there is an attraction or activities included.
Pricing is generally based on the size of each pumpkin, usually starting at £1 for the smallest produce and up to £20 for an extra-large pumpkin.
Farm diversification case study – Kemps Farm, Horsforth, Yorkshire
The mixed arable and livestock family farm in Yorkshire diversified into pick-your-own pumpkins in 2018, after previous success in pick-your-own fruit and direct sales of turkeys.
The business has continued to grow, and now produces more than 70,000 pumpkins each year, with the pick-your-own-pumpkin site open during October.
Rory Kemp, who runs the family business alongside his wife Diane and two sons, Joe and Will, says introducing ticketing has helped them to grow their enterprise.
Mr Kemp says: “A big thing is limiting numbers by ticketing, which has helped stop peaks and troughs during the day. We are now able to charge for entry and offer a tractor and trailer ride from the parking to the pumpkins.”
The experience is marketed as a day out, with photo opportunities and a chance for the public to see some of the farm’s livestock. Additional income is created through selling drinks and snacks.
The business uses converted shipping containers as temporary structures, which helps to reduce costs.
Mr Kemp is keen to market the day as a visit to a real working farm, rather than a tourist attraction and believes this helps create more of a family appeal, which is key to its continued success.
A sizeable social media following through the existing pick-your-own enterprises helps market the pumpkins to a large audience and increase footfall on farm.
“The business wouldn’t work if it was just some pumpkins growing in a field. People want the experience – they want the tractor and trailer rides, wheelbarrows and the photo opportunities,” Mr Kemp says.
“You’ve also got to like the public and you’ve got to be health and safety conscious.”
The site is staffed by the Kemp family, as well as regular seasonal staff. It is important to have the family there to speak directly to the public about the farm.
“People want to talk to the farmer; the business wouldn’t work if it was just students and temporary external labour manning the site.
“Everybody wants to meet the farmer, you’ve got to want to do that sort of thing and I’m very happy to – and that’s very important,” he says.
Farm diversification case study – Lyburn Farm, New Forest, Wiltshire
Jono Smales runs a mixed-farming enterprise at Lyburn Farm, which grows organic vegetables and pumpkins for the wholesale market. The 200ha tenanted farm also has a dairy enterprise and cheesemaker.
Mr Smales grows about 10 varieties of pumpkins and squash across 40ha, producing 140,000 pumpkins and a further 150,000 squash each year.
Challenges of growing for wholesale
Mr Smales says: “One of the biggest challenges is knowing how many pumpkins to plant to satisfy demand. A lot of customers approach us in the summer for Halloween and everything is drilled by then.
“Logistics can also be a challenge; we supply businesses in Scotland as well and transport costs can be a lot of money to get orders up there.”
Other familiar farming issues such as weather, disease and weeds can also cause challenges. Labour is getting harder to find, says Mr Smales, and the business has joined the government’s Seasonal Worker Pilot Scheme to try to access additional staff.