Farmers take steps to stop PYO pilfering

As berry season reaches its peak in the Northeast, frustrated farmers are fighting back against customers who think "PYO" stands for pilfer-your-own instead of pick.

Faced with having their fields treated like all-you-can-eat buffets, farmers who run pick-your-own or "u-pick" operations are using a variety of measures to recoup their losses, from offering gentle (or not) reminders to charging higher prices or even admission fees to get on the fields.

Irma Goodrich, who owns Saltbox Farm in Stratham, got so fed up last year that she shut down her farm a month earlier than usual. That was after one of her employees spotted someone paying for a single bucket of blueberries before driving away with three more in his car. Goodrich doesn't mind customers sampling the berries as they pick, but objects to those who "treat it like lunch."

"You don't need that kind of stuff," she said. "They just don't seem to have a great deal of respect. They don't seem to understand that we do this as part of our livelihood. It's not something we do for you to come in and help yourself."

Though Goodrich has noticed an improvement this year, she isn't ready to call it a trend. At the New Hampshire Farm Bureau Federation, president Jeffrey Holmes was more optimistic, saying he has received fewer complaints from members about theft.

The tough economy likely plays a role, though perhaps not how you'd suspect. Some farmers have speculated that people are starting to realize that farmers also are having a difficult time, he said.

"There's always a few bad apples and they can really ruin it for landowners," said Holmes, a dairy farmer. "We want to give a pat on the back to people who are courteous and play by the rules."

Farmers expect that customers will sample a little something as they pick; it's when the behavior becomes greedy or downright criminal that they feel abused.

It's unclear how widespread the pilfering is. In "A Farmer's Guide to a Pick-Your-Own Operation" it published this spring, the University of Tennessee Extension Center for Profitable Agriculture included a section on theft, saying while many farmers have had little to no problem with it, others have struggled with shoplifters.

Some farmers reported customers piling produce in strollers, then covering it with coats and trying to roll past check-out registers. Others have seen people hide produce in their pockets or stash containers in their cars if they can park close enough to the fields.

The report recommends designing the customer and traffic flow to limit opportunities for theft and training staff members to watch for it. And for the customers prone to over-sampling, "humor can be incorporated into signage addressing the topic to remind customers of appropriate etiquette in a non-offensive way," the report said.

That's one of the approaches Diane Souther took at Apple Hill Farm in Concord. For several years, she put out a "Clear Your Conscience" bucket to collect money from people who over-indulged, "because we know and you know that you ate some fruit and berries."

Contributions to the bucket added up to about $200 a year, she said, mostly from parents of small children. She also has raised her prices a bit to account for theft, she said, and her loyal customers have been known to confront those who are taking advantage. In one encounter, a woman lectured another after hearing her tell her children, "You eat all you can, because I'm not feeding you lunch today."

"Overall, I think it all works out," Souther said. "We worry about it at times, but weather's our biggest concern, and we can do nothing about that."

At Bowman Orchards in Rexford, N.Y., owner Kevin Bowman said theft used to be so bad he considered eliminating his pick-your-own operation altogether. Instead, four years ago he started charging a $2 per person entrance fee for berry picking.

"We would have carloads and carloads of people who would just come to have a picnic at our expense," he said. "We actually encourage people to try the berries, but 'try them' doesn't mean stand there for 30 minutes."

Though customers didn't like the fees at first, their complaints lessened when they learned they could avoid them by signing up for the orchard's loyalty card program, he said.

Jen Geaumont of Henniker, N.H., visited Apple Hill Farm for the first time on Wednesday, along with her two children, two friends and their children. She estimated that the kids were eating one raspberry for every four that made it into the bucket and admitted it was particularly difficult to keep her 2-year-old son from plucking unripe berries along with ripe fruit. But she would never make a meal out of it, she said.

Tasting a few berries "is part of the experience," she said. "But not to that extreme."

"I couldn't even imagine other people would do that," she said.