Who saves money when you pick apples? The grower.

Photo: WxMom

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.

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Linsey Knerl's picture

This reminds me of the large pumpkin patch we have here in the metro Omaha area.  It is not unheard of for folks to spend $150 for a day of pumpkin fun for the whole family.  Pumpkins sell for between 15 and 50 dollars each... plus cost of activities.  We grew our own pumpkins, and while only one ended up producing, it was 32 cents for the pack of seeds. 

Thanks for the article!

Guest's picture

I've had experiences like that, but it's not universal. Yesterday, we went to Strawberry Acres just outside Allentown, PA. The apples were 99 cents a pound. Right now, New York State apples in our local grocery stores are 79 cents a pound, so the price difference is not that bad. There are similarly priced farms throughout the New York and Philadelphia areas. Also, many of these farms are organic and you will usually save money over store-bought organic produce. (Though not necessarily over farmer's market prices - but many of the farmer's markets around here close up before apple season is really at its peak.)

Guest's picture

This is certainly not a universal experience. I live in Washington state and spent the whole summer making biweekly trips to the U Pick farms in Green Bluff, WA. I would agree that purchasing produce--or other products--at the quaint little shops was expensive. The farms themselves, however, offered many bargains. Never, never, never was I charged simply to enter a farm or orchard. Every farm charged a price per pound only. For example, I picked apples for 60 cents a pound and peaches for 70 cents a pound. Rasberries and cherries averaged about 95 cents a pound and were still a fraction of the cost charged by either local supermarkets or farmers markets.

Carrie Kirby's picture

Guest, thanks for letting us know the cost-saving U-pick farms still exist. Like I said, if you are looking for a bargain, you'll have to search out a non-cute farm farther away from the big cities. There are plenty in the Chicago area that charge less than the one I visited -- many charge $1 a pound for apples -- but that's still not actually a savings.

Lindsey -- I grew up so looking forward to our annual visit to the pumpkin farm, but they only charged for the pumpkins back then and of course the whole place was simpler. The last few years my father has grown pumpkins for my daughters, which I just love, and not just because it's frugal.

Guest's picture

About 30 minutes outside of Ann Arbor we went to Wasems orchard and paid $10.50 for a half bushel. This was at least 20 lbs of apples (A bushel is either 42 or 48 lbs depending) not including what we tasted along the way.

50 cents a lb isn't free, but it was fun. We scored some Ida Red, Rome, Empire, and Red and Yellow Delicious (Our kids like them but not me)

Guest's picture

Sounds like a ridiculous amount to spend to me, and why would you have to pay for a 3 year-old. And what kind of car get's 6 mpg? Sure, you say you're factoring in the cost of tires/car/insurance etc, but in reality it cost much less than that, at least in tire wear and gasoline. A not very useful story.

Guest's picture

We live between Lancaster and Harrisburg, PA. The experience varies considerably. One very tidy place (selling jellies, etc. in a cute little shop) cost 17.50 for a half bushel - sold by weight. Another, a family run place closer to Lebanon Valley College, (Honey Bear Orchards) charged about $7 each (for at least 20 lbs. of peaches), and less for "drops". The second place was certainly a bargain, even adding in the gas, since I can, make jams, and freeze. A personal theory, go where the Mennonite ladies go, since they're into serious canning, and you'll find the best prices. Another offset, we go with another family and split the gas.

Carrie Kirby's picture

I used the AAA's driving costs estimates found here:


It says the average medium sedan costs 52 cents a mile to drive.

However, it's based on $2.26/gallon gas, which I haven't seen in the Chicago area, well, ever since moving here last year. Also, our car is 4-wheel drive (Subaru Forester) which ups the gas consumption. So actually, I should have used a higher number in my cost estimate.

Yeah, it does kind of stink that they charged us for the 3-year-old, but a lot of places do. 

To the Pennsylvania guest -- yeah, we visited an apple orchard in Wisconsin also this year, in a much more rural area, and there was a van full of Amish people there. We didn't pick our own at that orchard, but I did notice that the apples we bought were much cheaper than those I'd picked in Illinois. 

Guest's picture

You definitely have to call around to find a U-pick place that is more about the picking and the product than the "extras". I live in SE Pennsylvania, outside of Philly and took my kids last weekend to a U-pick place in Langhorne PA. We had a great afternoon in the beautiful fall weather, paid only $0.49 per pound for the apples and got a free hay ride up and back to the pumpkin patch. Pumpkins were also reasonably priced. It was a great deal all around. We had called another local place that we had visited in the past. They were charging $0.99 per pound and everything like hay ride, corn maze etc. was an extra charge. Just like for everything else, it pays (or saves $$) to shop around. Just be willing to make some calls and ask questions.

Guest's picture

I live in the "fruitlands" of Massachusetts, so pick-your-own places are everywhere, and they ARE pricey. I've done it two years running now, but I doubt I'll go again. To make it worth your while you have to pick A LOT of apples (as you point), and then you have to do something with all of them. I think I'd rather harvest the apples from my own tree (not as nice of apples for eating whole, but still good for baking) or just buy them in the store; that way, I get them at the rate I want them.

Anyway, great article, and I agree completely: it's really the experience you're paying for, and you really need to decide if that's worth it for you.

Guest's picture

I've visited u-pick farms in Virginia and Maryland, both within 40 miles of Washington DC, and I never had to pay an entry fee, just per pound. And that was last fall and the year before.

Those u-pick apples were slightly more expensive per pound than at regular supermarkets, but their quality far surpassed anything available in ANY supermarket I tried, including Whole Foods, in the DC area.

Tart, delicious, hardy apples at slightly higher cost than the oversized, easily bruised, virtually tasteless "apples" from the store? For me, that's a simple choice.

Guest's picture

I'm also in SE Pennsylvania. I picked peaches this summer and paid 55 cents per pound. That's a big savings for me, compared with what I'd pay in the stores. And it's also a savings for the farmer. Fortunately, I don't have to drive 40 miles to achieve that.

While I agree that long drives and extra money for "experiences," prepared foods (like doughnuts) and playground access can add up to a costly day out, I can hardly blame the farmers benefiting from your spending choices. Farmers work hard. They feed us. And they usually make do with far below the average income in their areas. Why shouldn't they enjoy a decent living?

Eating locally has so many other good knock-on effects that it's worth our while to really consider doing, even in the unlikely event that we pay a bit more for the food. If the food you get at the supermarket seems cheaper than what you pay at the farm, rest assured, somebody somewhere and at some time is going to pay for those savings, with interest. It might be you, your children, or your grandchildren, but it will happen.

Guest's picture

I went to Apples on Oak in Joliet, which is 36 miles from downtown Chicago, and paid $1/pound for heirloom apples. Granted, there were no hayrides, haunted trails, or or petting zoos, but there was a large, friendly dog, and there were plenty of kids there enjoying themselves. The farm was plenty "cute." There were rolling hillsides, and most of the varieties were marked.

I can't stand these farms that charge $3.75 for a caramel apple - a markup of a hundred percent or more on the cost of ingredients.

BTW, how is $1/pound not a savings? My local produce market charges $1.75/pound for apples that are of far worse quality than the ones I picked.

Guest's picture

Being a 2 hour drive from downtown Chicago, I am amazed at how many families will travel that distance for the "experience " of picking apples. And because they do drive that distance, we offer them "entertainment" to make the trip more worthwhile so they can spend the day here. We have been open since the fall of 1997 and are now having 2nd generation families continuing the tradition of going to Royal Oak Farm to pick apples. Our prices are comparable to grocery store prices unless you buy or windfall apples for $12.95 per 1/2 bushel (approx 22 lbs)which comes to 59 cents per pound. Our U-Pick or Pre-Picked prices are the same, $13 per peck or $24 per 1/2 bushel which averages about $1.10 per pound.

Most grocery store apples are from the previous year's crop maintained in Controlled Atmospheric storage in either Washington State, Michigan, or New York among a few. Going into each apple season there is an average of about 15 - 20 million bushels of apples in storage around the US and those apples will be shipped out before the current season's crop will be sold to the grocery stores. There is no better apple than a fresh tree ripened apple picked from the orchard. They should cost more because the quality is far superior than a brocery store apple.

Carrie Kirby's picture

Because many varieties of apples are routinely on sale for less than that. Even Peapod.com, not exactly a budget market, is currently advertising 3-pound bags for $2.50 in several varieties.

 If you have a good reason for going out apple picking -- to support the farmers, because you're getting better quality, or because you just enjoy it -- by all means, do it!

My point is that if you show up at just any orchard expecting to load up on apples at savings commensurate with the time and labor you invest, you will be disappointed.

Guest's picture

I also have friends who've paid 50 cents a pound at U-Pick orchards.

The apples I picked, in addition to being heirloom varieties with more flavor than those available through Peapod, were organic.

Peapod may have apples on sale for $2.50/pound, but that doesn't include their fee ($6.95-9.95) and fuel surcharge.

Guest's picture

I've noticed locally grown organic lettuce is significantly cheaper for me to buy at the store than direct from the same grower at our farmer's market that is held in the store's parking lot. That irks me because our Farmer's Market receives subsidies from local city governments, so I expect direct purchases to be less expensive while still netting more profit for the farmer. But the farmer seems to view his artificially low cost of doing business as just extra profit for him.

Meanwhile, my family picks its own blueberries on a local farm and saves a lot of money over store-bought berries shipped from anywhere in the world. We buy a ton and freeze them for use over the winter when only overseas pesticide berries are in the stores.

So, check prices whatever the source.

Andrea Karim's picture

I grew up in the Apple Capital of the World, as I've mentioned a few too many times before, and we used to just go to the orchards after harvest and pick up the leftovers. The late-ripening fruit was still delicious, and it would go to waste anyway. We generally checked with the orchardist first.

Mind you, this is back when it was common to have orchards IN TOWN. That no longer exists.

Guest's picture

I think you have only yourself to blame if you have an "apple stuck in your craw" as a result of paying $80 for a day of apple-picking. If you hadn't gone to a tourist-trap orchard, you could have had a great time for a lot less.

Guest's picture

I run a pick-your-own fruit farm in Massachusetts along with my parents. I think what you are forgetting about these types of farms is the waste our customers make compaired to a crew of pickers would. Every group of five customers eats at least 10 apples, and most of the time more because they only eat a 1/4 of each apple. That has to be factored into the price of pick-your-own. In terms of price we charge the same price for all varieties, honeycrisp, mac, red delicious, fuji, etc... where as the suppermarkets near here are charging 2.50/lb for Honeycrisp! We are roughly $1-$1.30/lb. There is also more expense in controlling and handling a crowd and there is more risk due to weather than a wholesale orchard has. Most of our customers come in 5 weekends in the fall, if it rains those weekends they cont come and the crop does not get picked, the fruit falls on the ground and is worthless. Our customers apperciate being on the farm and know they are here for more than the food - the experience!

Guest's picture

Thanks for the interesting post. My son isn't old enough to appreciate this experience, but I have every intention of going picking once he gets older. You make a good point to remember that picking is more about the experience than the cost; it should make our trip a bit more successful.

We go to our farmers' market every week despite knowing that it's not always cheaper than my local grocery store, though there are some great deals to be had. We want fresh, local, organic produce, and I like being able to support local farmers. Besides, their efforts are tremendous, and their income is minimal. I don't mind paying a little more for food if it means that I'm helping keep them in business.

That said, we're lucky enough to have a year-round farmers' market. We're truly spoiled :-)

Andrea Karim's picture

Hey, Dennis, thanks for commenting. That's a really good point. Plenty of people have never had frut fresh off of the tree (or bush), so describing what makes it so wonderful can be difficult. I personally never buy apples after May - I can only take so many months of cold storage taste before I crack. :)

When I was a kid, one of my friends lived next door to an orchard. Once harvest was over, the apples would just rot on the tree or on the ground, so we would go into the orchard and pick up unblemished apples. The best apples I ever tasted were called Winesaps . I don't think anyone grows them in Washington anymore, because, like the Red Delicious, they don't keep very well. 

Guest's picture

we here at Sky Meadow Farms in Leona Valley, California Never over charge on our fruit. we have always been lower than most stores. we charge a flat rate from $1.50 to $2.00 a pound. it's a experience that the entire family enjoys. think of the Benefits it provides... Getting the children off the game boy, t.v, guitar hero, Exercise never hurts anyone. In addition to picking your own fruit! try eating a few Apples or any fruit in that Manner at the store... We u pick Growers often Joke about weighing in our customers before sending them out to pick. It's all in fun and Love the Smiles. We also encourage the children to weigh the fruit themselves it aids in Mathematics. Perhaps comparing farms pricing could avoid any Sad experiences. Sky Meadow Farms.

Guest's picture

I am an apple grower in PA. We sell u-pick apples for $6.00/half bushel. That is conservatively about 30 cents/lb. Since apples in the grocery stores around here are $1.50-$1.75/lb. the u-pick winds up being a very good deal. Most of our community appreciates this value and would rather support their local farmers than buy from giant distribution centers that are selling last year's apples at a much higher price!