Sep 16, 2011
Arizona farm reinvents to stay successful

When you think of Arizona, you don’t immediately think of fruit and vegetable farming. That is probably part of what has made Schnepf’s Farms in Queen Creek, Ariz., successful, according to Mark and Carrie Schnepf. This year marks the 70th anniversary of Schnepf Farms, which began with Ray and Thora Schnepf.

It wasn’t easy and it wasn’t always successful, though. Mark and Carrie will be the first to tell you that. Over the years, the farm has evolved and tried many things.

“You’ve got to be willing to reinvent yourself when you and your farm need to change,” Mark said. “You have to be willing to innovate and grow with what your customer wants and be willing to accept diversification. Over the years, the farm has changed and what we’ve grown has changed.”

Carrie echoed Mark’s sentiment.

“You’ve got to be thinking ahead about what your customers want and carefully plan to give them that in an attractive way,” she said. “We know we need to stay on top of what other farmers are doing.”

The farm started out with row crops. In the 1960s, Ray Schnepf began growing potatoes. More and more vegetables were added, as well as peaches suited to growing in arid climates. The farm grew to more than 5,000 acres and was shipping produce across the country. During the 1970s they added u-pick, which grew into the main part of the business when Mark and Carrie took over. Today, the entire crop grown on Schnepf Farms is direct marketed through farmers’ markets, festivals and u-pick, Mark said.

Grow it and they will come

With that kind of acreage, how do you get enough people to come to your farm to pick your entire crop?

“With most farms, they go through and pick off much of the produce to fill whatever order they have and then open up for u-pick to let the customers come in and get whatever is left,” Mark said. “We don’t do that. We let the customers come in and have access to pick the best fruit and vegetables and we’ve found that they end up picking it all.”

To get the kind of traffic they need, the Schnepfs throw an annual Peach Festival. The first was held 20 years ago.

“The festival was the hook to get them in, and we were really unprepared for the turnout at the first peach festival we threw,” Carrie said. “Within an hour and a half, we were completely picked out.”

“I ended up sending people to my neighbors’ farms who had peaches, and they picked them out, too,” Mark said.

Now the festivals, of which there are several each year, bring in 30,000 to 50,000 visitors to the farm each time. The Schnepfs are the largest peach grower in the state, with 60 acres of peach trees that they flood-irrigate from wells and the Central Arizona Project, a canal running from the Colorado River. They add more trees every year. And it is all u-pick, Mark said.

The Schnepfs have found that people will come to the farm whenever there is a crop in season.

“Whatever is in season, they’ll come to pick it,” Mark said. “People are focusing on the garden, getting back to the farm. People just seem to want that experience. It could be potatoes, onions, carrots, squash … People just want the experience of pick-your-own.”

To pull off the festivals and promote the farm, the Schnepfs are diligent about promotion. Carrie comes from a background in television media and Mark has experience in politics. These experiences taught them to raise their visibility and to become very active within their community, Carrie said.

“You have to know the press and know what the story is if you’re going to invite the press to your farm,” she said. “Above all, keep your name around. Social media has worked very well for us. We use Facebook, Twitter and our website to let people know what is going on.”

Mark knows exactly what has helped their business in these respects, because he married her.

“Carrie is our secret weapon,” he said. “This is definitely her area.”

One of the things that helped was conveying the message that they had a truly great family farm and it was a great place to bring your family, Carrie said.

Another thing that has worked well is to make your farm worth the trip, Carrie said. Much of their traffic comes from the Phoenix area, and each year they want something new.

“We may add a new attraction, or a ride, but we plan for it and budget it. If times are tough, we do smaller projects,” Mark said. “Not long ago, the budget didn’t allow for much so we simply repainted the buildings and added landscaping. It was enough.”

The best advice the Schnepfs can give about being successful in farm marketing is to like people.

“You have to be people-oriented,” Mark said. “You have to go in knowing that you’re going to have to answer the same questions over and over again. You know you’re going to have to be polite and friendly even when you’re having a bad day.”

Locally grown labor

The Schnepfs have seven full-time employees and as many as 100 seasonal workers for picking, trimming and festival help. All of the workers they hire are local people. They use no migrant labor. Much of the seasonal workforce is made up of college kids and unemployed professionals from the area.

“We hold a one to two-day job fair and advertise it with social media and a big banner on our barn,” Carrie said. “We have lots of applicants and we run them through a few-minute interview. We get a lot of people coming back each time.”

Mark said don’t be afraid to look locally.

“In the early years, the farm had to rely on lots of migrant workers,” he said. ” Now, because of the economy, we’re finding it easier to get local employees. Don’t assume local people won’t take the job. It’s just not the case anymore. Don’t be afraid to aggressively promote opportunities for work.”

By Derrek Sigler, associate editor

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