When blazing summer heat turns into crisp fall air, San Luis Obispo County tourists and residents often head to their favorite U-pick farms, where visitors are allowed to handpick fresh fruits and vegetables.
For some, venturing into a fragrant orchard or trudging through acres of farm fields is already part of an annual family tradition. But U-pick is gaining popularity as more people seek a greater understanding of local agriculture.
“I encourage families, vacationers and home-schoolers to come here because so many children in our day and age don’t know where their food comes from,” said Carolyn Sokol, who owns and operates Carolyn’s Farm in Templeton. “It’s so exciting when they see that a blossom turns into an apple. They know this wonderful stuff came from a tree.”
While there’s no data on the number of U-pick farms countywide or how many visitors they receive annually, anecdotally, growers and agriculture and tourism officials report that U-pick is seeing renewed interest here and throughout California. These farms help to drive tourism, which in San Luis Obispo County, is the largest industry.
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“Agritourism partners, such as those who feature U-pick farms, add a unique experience for visitors,” said Stacie Jacob, executive director of Visit San Luis Obispo County, the county’s visitor and conference bureau. “Not only do they get to enjoy the fresh produce grown by high-quality farms, but they have the opportunity to experience the hands-on process that goes into bringing produce from the farm to the table.”
The resurgence can be attributed to the emphasis on locally grown food, the farm-to-table movement and the growth of farmers markets and community-supported agriculture programs, said Penny Leff, agritourism coordinator for the UC Small Farm Program.
“People are starting to appreciate what farmers are doing,” Leff said. “The more they get to taste fresh-picked fruits and vegetables, the more people are interested in going out to the farms. People also like to be outside, and going out to the farm to pick blackberries, blueberries, strawberries and vegetables is a great, low-cost adventure.”
U-pick farms benefit farmers, too, Leff said.
“The labor cost of picking those fruits and vegetables is pretty high, so if you can have people come out and pick their own, it makes sense for the farmers,” she said.
Many U-pick farms are free, although some farmers charge visitors for what they pick. Still more are offering on-site activities and entertainment, and sell items such as jams, jellies and baked goods at their stands or in gift shops.
“Hopefully a farm can make a little extra money off of this,” Leff said, noting that UC’s Small Farm Program hosts business workshops for farmers interested in starting U-pick operations. “When we work with farmers, we encourage them to charge their costs to make it worth their while.”
Besides the potential financial reward, farmers who choose U-pick develop relationships in their communities, and that means better name recognition at farmers markets and other events, Leff said.
A growing endeavor
For growers like Joy Barlogio, whose family owns and operates Jack Creek Farms off Highway 46 West, six miles west of Templeton and Paso Robles, it’s about earning a living and giving visitors an unforgettable experience.
“Some want to experience what it is like to harvest their own food,” she said. “Some want to reconnect with a simpler time and way of life. Some want to share a family experience. Others want to learn more about how the food they eat is grown.”
A fifth-generation family farm, Jack Creek Farms historically grew dry-land hay and grain. In the 1950s, Miles Barlogio started growing pumpkins along the banks of Jack Creek and sold them from his roadside stand, Joy Barlogio said. At that time, it was known as the Barlogio Pumpkin Center, she said, adding that families from around the county would visit every fall to buy their pumpkins and winter squash.
Miles Barlogio’s grandson Tim Barlogio, along with his wife, Joy and their daughters Becky and Mandy, have operated the farm stand on Highway 46 West since 1994.
Through the years, the family has continued to diversify and now offers U-pick for all of the crops grown on the farm, including olallieberries, garlic and sweet onions, lavender and plums, peaches, heirloom tomatoes and pumpkins.
Most visitors to Jack Creek Farms are tourists, and the farm offers something for people of all ages, including a hay maze, hay stack and farm animals.
The farm stand is the family’s primary source of income, said Barlogio. No one in the family has an “in town” job, and each person in the family plants, tends the crops and operates the farm stand full time. Eighty-hour workweeks are not uncommon.
Barlogio describes their family operation as being “land rich and cash poor.” The family is working really hard to make the farm profitable, she said.
“Each year, the farm has more and more requests for U-pick, and each year, the family diversifies the crops grown so that they can offer U-pick over a longer season,” Barlogio said.
Passion for produce
The reasons vary for opening a farm or orchard for U-pick, but for many growers, it’s born out of their love of agriculture and their desire to share that feeling with others.
Robyn Gable and her family own SLO Creek Farms, a 40-acre certified organic apple farm off Highway 101 and San Luis Bay Drive. The property used to be owned by the late John DeVincenzo, founder of the Avila Valley Barn. The Gables purchased the land from DeVincenzo 11 years ago, and leased it back to him for about seven years when he ran it as a commercial orchard. After DeVincenzo’s death in 2009, Gable’s husband, Blythe, decided to turn it into a U-pick operation.
“We’ve got the creek (San Luis Obispo) running through the middle of it (the orchard), and it’s so beautiful,” Robyn Gable said. “We ourselves are passionate about U-pick. We love it and enjoy it.”
Visitors are encouraged to eat as many apples as they can stomach in the orchard, and then take what they want home. But there’s also a small stand inside a garden area where customers can shop and then pay for what they want. The farm also has wholesale accounts, makes apple cider and sells at six farmers markets in the county.
In addition to the apple orchard, the property has a community garden and a sunflower maze. The family offers yoga in the orchard, and hosts a festival with music at harvest time. “You have to grow into it,” Gable said. “We started out the first year with one stand on the corner. Now, we get a lot of repeat customers, and they have become like family and friends.”
A one-woman operation, Carolyn Sokol embraced the idea of U-pick when she realized that she had more apples on her Templeton property than she could handle. Sokol bought the small property of fewer than 4 acres in 1996 to have space for her horse, but it had an abundance of apple trees, so she decided to turn it into a business.
Sokol, who has been selling apples since that time, specializes in growing pesticide-free Granny Smiths, which guests can handpick during apple season. She has 150 apple trees, and she sells most of the apples that the trees produce.
Sokol charges U-pick customers $1.50 a pound. If she picks the apples, the price is $2 a pound.
She acknowledges that her apple sales don’t make “that much money,” but it is a nice supplement to her retirement income. Sokol is a former Southern California Realtor and wrote freelance articles for a weekly newspaper in the foothills between Fresno and Sequoia before relocating to San Luis Obispo County in 1992 to care for her ailing mother.
While running an apple farm is hard work, Sokol is looking forward to seeing whether some of the new additions she’s made to the farm will attract more visitors.
This year, she is growing herbs, table grapes, apricots and cherries, and she’s making pies, breads and granola, too.
“I don’t know how it’s going to work out,” she said. “But I have a pretty good idea that it’s worth the effort. I have clientele that come every year just to buy my apples.”