In the mid-Atlantic region of the United States, many growers produce crops for the consumer-harvested or pick-your-own (PYO) market, in which the end consumer harvests the crop directly from the field. A number of fruit and vegetable crops work well as PYO crops, and growers often produce a wide range of crops to offer fresh produce items for PYO through much of the season. Many growers use PYO crops to entice customers to shop in an onsite farm stand for jams, jellies, baked goods, and other value-added items. Strawberries have one of the earliest harvest seasons and are important to PYO market-based operations for beginning the flow of customers in the spring.
Some factors consistently affect the shopping experience of PYO customers. In a study of direct marketing of strawberries for North Carolina, Safley et al. (2004) found that the predominant reasons cited by PYO consumers for picking less fruit than they expected were poor fruit quality (31.1%), fields were picked over/not enough fruit (17.6%), uncomfortably hot weather (6.8%), small fruit size (4.0%), too hard to pick berries (4.0%), and fields were too muddy (1.4%). Other answers not listed constituted 35.1% of the responses. The same study cited reasons customers picked more fruit than expected: good fruit quality (57.7%), easier to pick than expected (25.3%), good fruit size (7.8%), and low prices (4.6%) with 4.6% listing other reasons.
Although some of these factors such as fruit size, yield, and ease of harvest are partly influenced by cultivar selection, production systems also affect these and other factors that determine the PYO consumer's overall experience. To that end, growers who want to maximize PYO sales should consider using a system that enhances characteristics that consumers value such as quality and quantity of fruit produced, fruit size, and ease of harvest. Field conditions were also cited by Safley et al. (2004) as playing a role in how long PYO customers chose to pick. Weather conditions cannot be controlled, but a production system that maximizes customer comfort may help increase PYO sales.
Although it is important for growers to consider the desires of the public when designing their production practices, economics also dictate which practices are implemented. Some studies have shown that consumers are willing to pay a premium for products that are pesticide-free (Boccaletti and Nardella, 2000), environmentally certified (Jensen et al., 2003), and not genetically modified (Chern et al., 2002). If PYO strawberry customers were willing to pay a higher price for the convenience and increased enjoyment of picking strawberries from a system they prefer, it could improve the economic viability of a higher input system.
Growers in temperate regions of North America with PYO strawberry operations have typically used the conventional matted row production system. Some growers have tested a cold-climate plasticulture system that is thought to offer better weed control and improved fruit size and quality as well as increased yields in some situations (Fiola et al., 1995). The cold-climate plasticulture (CCP) system may also improve ease of harvest. The CCP system is an adaptation of annual hill production practiced in milder climates but is frequently cropped over multiple years and thus is not a true annual system. A third system, the advanced matted row (AMR), has been developed by researchers at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in Beltsville, MD, as a potential alternative production system (Black et al., 2002a). Although this system is not yet widely used, determining its acceptability to PYO customers is an important consideration for its implementation.
Some evidence suggests that management systems may influence overall fruit quality. For some cultivars, fruit from the CCP system have been shown to have increased soluble solids concentration, total sugar, fructose, glucose, ascorbic acid, titratable acid, and citric acid compared with the conventional matted row (Wang et al., 2002). It remains to be seen how closely related these measurable factors of fruit quality are to consumer perceptions.
A better understanding of how production practices affect consumer experience is important for aiding PYO-based growers in optimizing customer satisfaction. An experiment was carried out to compare three cold-climate strawberry production systems for overall consumer preference and for fruit quality.
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