Aug 5, 2017
Variety of methods keep track of farm visitors

On a busy weekend day, Tougas Family Farm can see upwards of 10,000 customers walking through its fields and orchards. Making sure everyone has paid admission, keeping customers in the right fields and picking produce, can all seem like a logistical nightmare to some.

The Northborough, Massachusetts farm, consisting of 120 acres, was designed to be primarily pick-your-own. Fruit crops take up about 80 acres, with 25 to 30 acres of those being reserved for apples.

A multi-faceted system, including two pricing components, wristbands and color-coded handles on bags, has made crowd control at Tougas Family Farm a much smoother process.

Tougas Family Farm opens its summer season in June with an admission fee. Pick- your-own customers pay a $5 admission fee that goes toward their purchase. “It’s really just like a prepaid minimum purchase,” Andre Tougas said. “So that people don’t go out into the farm and eat and eat and eat and not pay for anything in the end.” As long as customers keep their receipt, they get credited back $5 per person toward their purchase of fruit that they picked. In the end, customers pay the difference between total for the fruit picked and admission.

Tiered pricing is used for summer fruits to encourage customers to pick more fruit, Tougas said. “We’re rewarding those customers who are coming out and putting the work in and getting a large amount of fruit. They’re hopefully eating a lot lower percentage of what they’re picking; whereas the customers that are coming in for less than 10 pounds are probably eating a much higher percentage of what they’re actually picking.”

With multiple fruits available at a time, the Tougas family began incorporating a wristband component two seasons ago to reduce the number of visitors that wander to different fields. They also have the Tougas Family Farm name and logo printed on them.

“We can tell that everyone has paid ahead of time and they’ve paid for the fruit they intend on picking,” Tougas said. The color of the wristband depends on the fruit being picked. For example, strawberries will be designated a pink
color while those for blueberries will be blue. If customers wish to pick a combination of fruits, they are given an orange color. A table with scissors and a trash can are located at the orchard exit to avoid having the wristbands end up on the floor.

“I think people appreciate having that there so they don’t have to wear the wristband around for the rest of the day,” he said.

In the fall for apples and peaches, the pricing system switches over from an admission fee to pre-paid for u-pick containers or bags. The wristband system continues but with a few changes. Customers pay up front for the amount of fruit they plan on picking, with each container or bag size being good toward a set number of wristbands. For example, the prepaid fee for a peck of apples covers admission for up to four people; whereas a half-bushel covers admission for up to six.

“It makes it easier for us to maintain control out in the orchard. There are people that try to game our system anyway we set it up. So we’re just trying to make it as difficult as possible for that. We’re trying to make it difficult for them to do that while also making it still fun and enjoyable for other customers.”

At the beginning of each day, especially on the weekends, the pick-your-own employees have a meeting to inform everyone what the colors are for the day.

“We have a radio system, so if anyone forgets they can radio back and ask one of the managers what the colors are for the day,” Tougas said.

Pick-your-own customers typically pay approximately $36 for a half-bushel or $26 for a peck. Later in the season, usually after Columbus Day, the farm runs a special for buy one half-bushel, get the second one half price. The second bag, however, doesn’t include any additional admission or wristbands.

“It’s just for people to get extra food, not to allow more people onto the farm,” Tougas said.

The farm doesn’t run any specials on peaches, but a combination box for peaches and apples is available until Labor Day weekend.

“It used to be that peaches were more than apples, and we’d be chasing customers out of the peaches when they just had an apple bag,” Tougas said. “We figured it’d be easier to make pricing the same, that way they can mix them.”

Apple season is now the busiest time of the year for the farm, said Tougas. With high foot traffic passing through, the farm ramps up its crowd control efforts by adding colored peck handles to its system. The colored handles, which the farm has used for about 10 years now, help staff easily identify any customers that may have gotten through the farm without paying. Handle and wristband colors are changed every day. Tougas aims to wait about two weeks before reusing a color.

“It’s an easy way for us to tell that the bags were purchased that day,” he said. “So if there are a bunch of red handle bags and you see one green handled one, you say ‘Well that looks a little suspicious’ and then we’d ask to see their receipt.”

A few years ago the farm began using bags with “All apples must fit inside this bag” printed on them “so people aren’t trying to stuff their apples into bags or pockets.” They also include a spot for the date and number of people in the group. The front and back of the bags include how-to information on picking apples and a list of the varieties grown on the farm and what they are typically used for. The sides of the bags feature the farm logo and a schedule of when each fruit is in season.

Tougas said all of these measures have helped ease some of the problems that come along with welcoming large volumes of crowds on the farm. They have also taught him the importance of pricing products appropriately and knowing the value of what the farm is offering, he said.

“If you look at what other family activities cost, I think fruit picking is one of the best values out there. The advantage of fruit picking is you get a bag of apples or tray of strawberries when you leave that you don’t get anywhere else when you go on a family activity.

A lot of farms have underpriced themselves and they really could be stepping up their pricing to be more appropriate to what the family entertainment market is.”

Ease of access, management

Several crowd management strategies have been implemented at Tougas Family Farm in Northborough, Massachusetts to keep large crowds safe and help staff keep track of wristbands.

A single entry point was created for the farm to help keep track of how many people are entering and help funnel customers past a cashier to reduce the chance someone will get through without paying.

“We try to tighten up the entrance to the orchard as much as possible. We built a new entrance building with room for eight lines for check in 2014 and people passing through the building go past the registers,” Andre Tougas said. “We don’t have the orchard completely closed off so sometimes people can get around the back. We just wanted a visual cue to know who has already checked in.”

The entry building also has signs explaining the multifaceted system. Other signs are placed around the pick-your-own fields to remind customers of the farm’s guidelines. Tougas said the signs keep the text fairly simple and each one uses an image to illustrate the message.

“We have them on little A-frames that we can move around. There’s several messages we’re trying to communicate to the customers: Try to keep your children within arm’s reach, don’t step over the rows of strawberries, make sure you pick all the red ripe fruit as you’re going.”

Fencing has also helped keep customers out of restricted areas and point them to the appropriate u-pick fields, Tougas said.

“Fencing really made things a lot better for us,” he said. “We try to keep everything contained as much as possible and fenced off as much as possible.”

— Ana Olvera, digital content editor

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