For retail produce success: Selling farm experience is the key

Why do people flock to the Vollmer Farm in Bunn, N.C.? It's fun. The produce is fresh. And the food is good. So is the entertainment.

"We're trying to sell the farm experience rather than a specific product," says John Vollmer. That's why we're so diversified and why we keep adding new crops and other activities for folks to enjoy. It's taken us 20 years to build what we have, and we're still willing to try something new."

Once a 70-acre flue-cured tobacco farmer and president of the Tobacco Growers Association of North Carolina, Vollmer no longer grows any tobacco.

Visitors to his farm now find a diverse mix of crops, including strawberries, lettuce, cabbage, broccoli, collards, sweet potatoes, cauliflower, pumpkins and popcorn.

He plants an acre each of cotton, peanuts and corn so school kids and city folks can touch and see these crops up close. In a five-acre field on the "back 40," he has constructed a corn maze in the shape of the North Carolina State University wolf mascot.

Visitors to the Vollmer farm can pick their own strawberries or other crops in season or select from a variety of already harvested produce. After eating a hotdog or barbeque sandwich, they can enjoy homemade strawberry ice cream, churned with a John Deere hit and miss engine attached to an old fashioned White Mountain ice cream maker.

"We recently added our own private label jams and preserves and mixes for fruit cobblers and muffins," Vollmer says.

"At certain times of the year we bring in crafts and other gift items. We even buy fresh produce from local area farmers so we can offer items we don't grow ourselves. "I used to think we had to grow everything we sold. But I realized we cant grow everything. We need to grow enough of what we sell to attract customers. When they get here, we can offer them other things that we don't have the time or space to grow. We buy peaches and apples and some other produce from other growers. Customers come in for strawberries or pumpkins and leave with other vegetables and fruit."

Attracting customers to the farm and keeping them coming back is a constant challenge. Vollmer's wife Betty and daughter-in-law Mary work on promotion and customer service. Mary and her husband Russ moved back to the farm three years ago with the intention of increasing publicity and developing new enterprises to attract customers.

"We started offering hay rides on weekends three years ago," Mary says. "They have been real popular for school trips and birthdays and other groups. The children get to pick out their own pumpkin. We give them a tour of the farm. They can feed ducks and pet goats. They can walk through the crops. We have a playground and a picnic area.

"One of the most popular activities is the pumpkin slingshot," she continues. "They can shoot a mini pumpkin out into the pond. We have a steel drum painted like a Jack-O-Lantern floating in the pond. If they hit the drum with a mini pumpkin, they win a free Jack-O-Lantern."

A recent addition to the back 40 entertainment area is the five-acre corn maze. Vollmer worked with North Carolina State University agricultural engineer Gary Roberson to lay out the wolf design with a back-pack global positioning system. Vollmer planted the five-acre corn field in a cross-planted pattern and mowed the wolf pattern following the GPS design. Customers pay $6 each for the hay ride, pumpkin shoot, animal petting, crops tour and a walk through the maze.

"We got the idea of doing the corn maze from the North American Farmers Direct Marketing Association," Mary says. "The organization offers liability insurance and lots of interesting ideas. We learn from them and from other farmers."

To keep children and adults coming back, Mary has developed special emphasis weekends. At Halloween, she sends a complete education package about scarecrows, their history and how they are made, to local schools. Each class is invited to study the educational material and build a scarecrow. The class with the winning scarecrow gets $100 to be used for classroom supplies.

When Mary's daughter's class came for a farm tour, the farm donated $1 to the school PTA for each child wearing the school colors. On another weekend the farm donates all admission receipts to the United Way. During their harvest festival, they give a dollar admission discount to anyone donating a can of food to Safe Space Incorporated.

"We try to give back to the community and attract customers at the same time," Mary says. "One weekend we'll sell roasted ears of corn in the shucks. Another weekend we'll let children pop popcorn on the cob in a microwave. That's something most of them have never seen before. They spend several hours here, they learn a little about farming, and they have a good time."

Even while groups and individuals are taking advantage of all the farm has to offer, Vollmer is busy getting ready for the next season. While last minute plans are being made for pumpkin sales and hay rides, Vollmer is taking delivery of micro-propigated strawberry plants that will be grown out in greenhouses and set in fields this fall. For the first time this fall, some of his strawberries will be certified organic. Vollmer has spent the last three years preparing a section of the farm for organic production.

"We don't have a lot of people asking specifically for organic produce, but I think organic is a coming trend. We want to be able to offer what people want," Vollmer says.

An impetus for moving toward organic production is the impending loss of methyl bromide. Working with specialists at North Carolina State University, Vollmer is learning to use compost to take the place of commercial fertilizer and pesticides.

"I'm making my own compost from manure and straw and other things," Vollmer says. "It's an expensive process. What we wind up with looks like dark dirt. I've been impressed with the results. The whole principle behind this organic system is to make the soil and the plants so healthy they naturally resist diseases and insects. The principle is called SAR or Systemic Acquired Resistance. With intensive crop rotation, cover cropping and compost applications we have been able to grow organic strawberries with pretty much normal yields. It's more expensive the first couple of years. But after that the expenses even out. We're setting up other fields so, if the demand is there, we can expand our organic production.

"We plant crimson clover and oats as a cover crop," he continues. "That crimson clover is beautiful when it blooms. When customers ask what it is, we have a chance to explain the whole production system. We charge 20 cents a pound more for the organic strawberries. When our customers understand what we are doing and why we're doing it, they are happy to pay the extra and they tell their friends. That's what we're after here, satisfied customers and repeat customers."

Vollmer is scheduled to talk more about his experiences at the Southeast Vegetable and Fruit Expo and AgTech 2000 in Greensboro, N.C., on Dec. 11-13. His topic is Enterprise Mixing From Pick Your Own to Educational Programs for Kids. For more information on the meeting and for registration information, contact Bonnie Price Holloman at 919-772-2204, or e-mail [email protected] Or, visit the event website at

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