Real Farmers – Real Risks: Interview with Raspberry Knoll Farms

Raspberry Knoll Farm in North Windham is one of Connecticut’s premier pick-your-own operations, featuring a wide variety of berries, herbs, veggies, and flowers. Located in the Northeastern region of the state, this family owned farm attracts droves of patrons throughout the growing season, starting in June with strawberries and going all the way through till fall with their winter veggies. The farm is owned and operated by Mary and Pete Concklin who started their business in 2011 with just raspberries and then diversified each year after. Mary Concklin plays a dual role in the world of agriculture; she is also the Fruit and IPM Extension Specialist at the University of Connecticut. UConn’s Risk Management team sat down with Mary this month to discuss some the risks associated with pick-your-own operations, some mediation and prevention strategies, and the role that crop insurance plays in the operation at Raspberry Knoll.

Even though pick-your-own operations carry with them a particular set of risks, Mary Concklin decided that these risks were greatly outweighed by the main benefit of being pick-your-own: not having to have to acquire or pay for harvest labor. By streamlining and specializing their operation, Raspberry Knoll has effectively eliminated one of the largest growing issues in agriculture. However, this isn’t to say they do not face risks. When asked about the largest risk of having large numbers of people on the farm, Mary stated that many people are inclined to eat while they pick, which in turn means that there are berries that are not being paid for. “We don’t mind if you try a few and figure out which varieties you like, just don’t make a meal out of it”, she says. “Other than that, there’s really been no issues, we attract a really nice crowd. We haven’t seen any damage to plants or equipment from customers”.

rows of raspberry bushes in North Windham
Rows of raspberries at the farm.

Although Raspberry Knoll seems to have a handle on the ins and outs or pick-your-own, we wanted to know what advice Mary would give to other pick-your-own operations. The first piece of advice was to not allow pets within the pick your own fields, “We are producing food and people may not be picking up after their pets”. The second piece of advice was aimed at preventing loss. “You need to be set up for pick-your-own to do this properly. We knew that we were going to be pick your own from the beginning and we planned our operation around it. The fields are completely fenced in to prevent animals (humans included) from eating the crops. Everyone must pass through the farm stand to leave, ensuring everything gets paid for. You need to control the flow, otherwise you’ll have a hard time trying to keep track of things”.

And how about other risks, ones not associated with pick-your-own? Mary shared a story about an ongoing battle with some local wildlife. Apparently, beavers were repeatedly flooding some of the fields at Raspberry Knoll, making it difficult to get out into the fields and plant. Mary and Pete had to people to trap and move the beavers so they could make use of the acreage that they had. Mary says that raccoons have also been an issue in the past, eating sweet corn even when protected by fences. Wildlife is something that you have to live with and it’s often times hard to control for.

So, what about crop insurance? Mary is a huge proponent of crop insurance as a part of an effective risk management plan, but she stated that she did not have crop insurance on her farm, “We’re so diversified, it’s hard to justify the expense”. They have a wide variety of berries and other crops that carry them through the entire season, including a vegetable CSA and pick-your-own flower and herb gardens. By being so diversified, if there is a loss in one crop or variety the others help to mediate that loss. “We had one variety of raspberries that we lost to winter injury two years in a row. So, we just dug those up and planted new varieties”, Mary says. The diversity at Raspberry Knoll helped them mediate that loss and Mary assures that this is a great way to mediate many risks. However, Mary admitted that even though diversifying may help to mediate the loss of a crop you are still losing revenue and considering a whole-farm revenue insurance plan is a great option, even for those farms who are well-diversified.

view of raspberry farm in North Windham
A view of Raspberry Knoll Farm.

What advice would you give farmers, either new or established, regarding risk management or crop insurance? “Be smart”, she says. This is in regard to workflow. This year Mary is employing the use of high tunnels in her blackberry crop where winter hardiness is an issue. This way the canes won’t have to be laid down every year to protect them and can instead grow straight up without the threat of injury. Next, “Diversify”. She suggests covering all your bases and not relying too much on any one thing. As we all know, it’s hard to control for the unknown and being diverse can help to prevent unnecessary headaches. Finally, “Take a look at the crop insurance policies. If there’s not a policy that fits your operation, contact an agent and talk with them. There may be something you are missing, a plan that could benefit your operation immensely”.

Article by Evan Lentz