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Business lessons from the pumpkin patch

By Caroline McMillan Portillo
cmcmillan@charlotteobserver.com
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2013/10/28/16/52/bKBZT.Em.138.jpeg|210
    T. Ortega Gaines - ogaines@charlotteobserver.com
    While sitting among the mountain of pumpkins, Tyler Davis, 4, gets a better look at Madaline Ricci’s pumpkin before settling on his pumpkin at The Hunter Farm in Weddington.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2013/10/28/16/52/AZ4Vr.Em.138.jpeg|224
    T. Ortega Gaines - ogaines@charlotteobserver.com
    Izzy Woessner, 4, reaches for the perfect pumpkin to take home along with her classmates of Lambs of Grace Development center at Hunter Farm in Weddington.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2013/10/28/16/52/cGqWw.Em.138.jpeg|221
    T. Ortega Gaines - ogaines@charlotteobserver.com
    Wade Gonzago, 4, left, and Cole Elliott, 4, find a spot on a tree stump play with their pumpkins at Hunter Farm in Weddington.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2013/10/28/16/52/10l4kh.Em.138.jpeg|210
    T. Ortega Gaines - ogaines@charlotteobserver.com
    Sara Beth Stewart, 4, left, compares her pumpkin with the pumpkins of Tyler Davis, 4, and Madaline Ricci, 4, after looking for the perfect pumpkin at Hunter Farm in Weddington.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2013/10/28/16/52/ttzvs.Em.138.jpeg|476
    T. Ortega Gaines - ogaines@charlotteobserver.com
    Four-year old Tyler Davis wears his little pumpkin on his head as his classmates of Lambs of Grace Development Center call him pumpkin head. Kids from around the Weddington area, along with parents and teachers, got a chance to walk around Hunter Farm and pick a pumpkin of their choice. Hunter Farm is a favorite of families during this season just before Halloween.

Nancy Anderson knows this much: Running a farm in 2013 is nothing like running one in 1868.

So when she and her husband, Phillip, a former fighter pilot in the Air Force, took over the family business, The Hunter Farm in Weddington, she knew they’d need to make some changes.

It was 1995, and her uncle Jim had been overseeing operations. She ran her ideas by him: “Let’s bring the community here,” she said. Give tours. Teach lessons.

“But Uncle Jim said, ‘No one is going to pay to come here,’” Nancy recalls. “And I said, ‘Oh yes, they will.’”

Sure enough, these days every hayride is full, families from all over the region come for pumpkins and Christmas trees, and nearly every school in the area has sent a group on a field trip to the farm, where students learn that milk doesn’t come from a grocery store and beef doesn’t come from the meat counter.

But it took business savvy to keep the family-operated farm, nestled on 60 acres down Providence Road and now part of the Catawba Land Conservancy, as it always was, even as shopping centers and new neighborhoods surrounded it.

ShopTalk spoke with Nancy Anderson, former mayor of Weddington, and her son, Eric – one of four kids, and the fifth generation of the family to work there – to find out some of their secrets to sustained success that could apply to all small businesses.

1. Budget for infrastructure improvements.

Farming is a risky business, Nancy said, and one with very slim margins. But just as they budget for the unexpected (tractor repairs, vet bills, storm damage to the barn), they also budget for capital improvement, “like you do as a homeowner,” Nancy said.

Re-roofing the farmhouse her grandmother was born in cost $40,000, Nancy said. And when it was time for a new fence, it took Eric an entire summer to replace it.

“You have to plan,” Nancy said.

Eric offers another tip: Don’t scrimp on your bread and butter. For example, the wagons they give rides on cost $12,000 to $15,000 each. The tractors that pull them cost anywhere from $60,000 to $80,000.

They could spend less and buy wagons and tractors that work well in the short-term, Eric said. But running a business should be an exercise in long-term planning. You want to invest in infrastructure that lasts.

2. Turn feedback into business brainstorming.

During Nancy’s tenure, some of The Hunter Farm’s most successful endeavors stemmed from visitor comments.

That’s how they ended up running their popular summer camps. Now, for $175 a week, kids can groom horses, go fishing, bottle-feed calves and make birdhouses. On the last day, parents are invited to take a hayride and enjoy ice cream, made by the campers.

And thanks to visitor comments and requests, the farm now is a site for weddings, receptions and the occasional outdoor Mass, Nancy said.

During one school field trip to the farm, a teacher suggested they expand the picnic area to give the kids more space to play.

Soon after, the Andersons moved some fence posts to make a pasture smaller, doubling the size of the grassy area where kids run around. The move also caters to the NFL’s Play60 initiative that encourages schoolchildren to be active for 60 minutes a day.

3. Prioritize customer satisfaction. Even if it (initially) hurts the bottom line.

When the Anderson family first began offering farm tours, they loaded groups of children into the covered wagons at 9 a.m., 10 a.m. and 11 a.m.

But that schedule soon became problematic, Eric said, as they found the early folks always arrived late and the later folks always came early. That usually left some group waiting around – not ideal for the teachers and chaperones of dozens of hyped-up elementary school kids. It also made for a crowded parking lot.

So the farm decreased its offering to just two tours, one at 9:30 a.m. and another at 11:30 a.m., and made them longer.

The dairy barn can only hold one wagon load at a time. And Eric, who runs the cow-milking demonstration, needs 15 minutes with each group, Nancy said. He’s not going to speed through, just to get another paying group of customers in as quickly as possible.

“(Visitors) pay for a product, and they want to enjoy themselves,” Nancy said. “They don’t want to be crowded, rushed, herded. They’re not sheep.”

Eric agrees: “On paper, we could have made more money ... (with three groups),” Eric said. “But we found out that, in reality, it’s better to have a whole lot of satisfied customers than a whole bunch of customers who may never come back. ... Then every customer will tell others (to go).”

The result: The Andersons haven’t had to advertise in more than a decade.

4. Don’t grow complacent. Always give customers a new reason to stop by.

Retailers and museum curators agree on this much: Fresh offerings are vital. It’s good to offer some staples, but that alone isn’t going to reel in customers; shoppers need new visuals and new wares.

It’s the same on the farm. Nancy said when they first started the school tours, they were short, with just a hayride and petting barn. And gradually they enhanced the program to include live cow-milking and a hands-on “all food comes from the farm” educational session for students.

Their next endeavor caters to the adults: a community garden.

“People like to grow their own food ... but in the suburbs, it’s not always an option,” Nancy said.

So in the spring, they’re going to fence in around an acre of farmland, rent out plots and have area experts offer training on how to make the soil nutrient dense.

Nancy said part of sustaining a farm in the 21st century is helping the community realize what a “crown jewel it is, sitting in the middle of downtown Weddington.”

And the best way to get that point across? Nancy: “Share it with other people.”

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