Who saves money when you pick apples? The grower.
Taking the family to the country for an afternoon of picking apples can be a charming fall ritual. In years past, picking your own produce was also a way for families to save money. But be warned that at most U-pick orchards these days, you will pay more for your apples than you would at the grocery store. You pay for the "agritainment" -- the experience of living a Disneyfied version of rural life.
On a recent visit to Kuipers Family Farm, about an hour from Chicago, I shelled out $6.50 each for my husband, our 3-year-old daughter and myself to enter the orchard and pick 1/4 peck of apples, about 3 pounds. I could have sat on my couch and ordered a 3-pound-bag of apples from Peapod for $2.50.
I'm not saying there aren't good reasons to visit a U-pick farm. For one thing, these operations have become the only way many apple growers stay on their land, so if you want to support local agriculture and stave off the groundbreaking of yet another subdivision, go for it.
"The other choice is selling (the land) for development," said Jane Eckert, founder of Eckert AgriMarketing in St. Louis. One hundred thousand acres have already been taken out of apple production in the last 10 years, according to the US Department of Agriculture. With suburbs continually expanding into once-rural areas like the Kuipers' Maple Park, now abutted by Chicagoland's western reaches, selling out is often a lot more attractive than selling apples to supermarkets for 31 cents a pound.
U-pick is a wonderful switch in business model for the growers: Instead of hiring laborers (which are hard to get in some communities with immigration crackdowns) to pick, grade, sort and package apples, they just sell the public empty sacks and throw open the gates to the orchard. OK, they also have to hire a few people to herd the tourists around and, if they're really smart, they make doughnuts too, but still, it's not as hard as trying to make a profit harvesting apples.
Randy White, another consultant to would-be agritainers, says the orchards are scaling the the progression of economic value from the least profitable level, selling commodities, to the highest level, selling experiences.
That means much better margins, if they do it right, and freedom from the price fluctuations of the commodity market. American apple growers have seen the prices for the concentrate used to make juice wither after China got into the international market. But one thing Chinese growers can't do, for now, is offer American yuppies a $7 trip through the corn maze along with their apples.
I certainly value the idea of showing my children the apples growing on the tree and giving them the chance to pick their own fruit. But honestly, my daughter had a more authentic experience last year picking apples in our Chicago back yard. For one, the tree in our yard was full height, not one of the dwarf trees they grow now to increase the per-acre production and make harvesting easier. I have to admit, this trip was mainly for our amusement, and amusing oneself by pretending to be a peasant for a day is kind of Marie Antoinette, is it not? Let them eat apple crumble!
And I really had to sigh when I saw what an expensive day the outing added up to. The smart growers have added lots more spending opportunities for urbanites: We shelled out another $5 to $6 each for a play area that included sandboxes full of corn, a mountain of hay bales for climbing, a petting zoo and a haunted trail. And of course we ponied up $6 for a dozen apple cider doughnuts.
Add that to the 50 cents a mile (low estimate) it cost us to drive 40 miles each way to Maple Park, and the whole day came in at about $80.
Was it worth it? Maybe. But if you want rural family fun, make sure to budget this kind of bucks so you won't have an apple wedge stuck in your craw like I did.
Or, find a farm that still offers savings in exchange for the labor of picking apples -- if such a place exists. Hint: It won't be one with a petting zoo, and it will probably be much farther from a major metropolitan area. Or, at least pick more apples: At Kuipers, we could have picked an additional 10-pound bag for $10, bringing our total cost to $90 -- about $5 a pound for bringing home 18 pounds of apples, instead of $10 a pound for bringing home about 8 pounds of apples.
Then again, I would have rather spent the extra $10 on more apple cider doughnuts and called it a day.