The Tree Farm is a family-owned pick-your-own (U-pick) vegetable farm operating for over 40 years in Dane County, Wisconsin. Our business began as a cut-your-own Christmas tree operation in 1968. In those days we raised a large garden to feed our small family. We invariably produced more vegetables than we could eat. We offered the surplus to friends. They responded "Sure, bring them over". Not only do we have to do the picking but the delivering as well? Would people come and pick their own vegetables for a reasonable price? By 1973, we were selling vegetables and Christmas trees. We no longer sell Christmas trees but the name of our farm remains The Tree Farm.
We started small. In the first season, roughly a dozen or more different types of vegetables grown in about 1.5 acre were available for picking. Today, the selection has increased to over 50 different types of vegetables, 20 kinds of flowers, and a variety of herbs grown over 15 acres on our 100-acre farm. Asparagus, rhubarb, flowers, honey and sometimes spinach are available by appointment in May and June. Regular open hours begin in late June or early July when peas, beets, zucchini and several other early vegetables are ready followed by an abundance of other vegetables as the season progresses through the first weekend in November.
It has taken many years of experience — trial and error — to learn how to produce vegetables for pick-your-own sales and market them successfully. The vegetables we raise have been selected for flavor, not just appearance. Since our first season in 1973, we have been observing our customers as they taste test and compare different varieties. (OK, so we've done more than a little tasting, ourselves.) Input from customers and from our own evaluations aids and enables selection of the best varieties for future planting.
Our customers come from many different backgrounds and cultures. They frequently ask us "Why don't you raise vegetable x or y?" Produce that they like but are unable to find in quantities and qualities that they are used to. More than once, the first step toward production of an additional vegetable has been finding an English translation for our customer's request. The second challenge is often finding a seed source. If the plant will grow in our climate and if we can afford to raise it and sell it for customers to harvest, we probably already raise it. If not, we are interested in your suggestions. By paying attention to what our customers like, diversity has become our specialty. Very few farms in the area offer the diversity of vegetables, herbs and flowers for pick-your-own sales offered by the Tree Farm. In this regard The Tree Farm is unique.
Picking your own vegetables is a little different from selecting them from a grocery store or a Farmer's Market. Our produce is planted in several different fields. We have a field 7, not an aisle 5. Our overhead lighting is solar — and it turns off when the sun sets. We close briefly for active lightening, but not for rain — although the resulting mud may affect picking conditions and general ambiance.
What better way is there for children (and their parents?) to learn where food comes from than to visit a working farm to harvest vegetables outside where the plants grow.
The produce available for sale has not been picked, washed, sorted, sized and graded for uniformity. Produce like peppers, tomatoes and many others do not all ripen at the same time. As produce is picked, the plants continue to produce more. It has been an ongoing challenge to guide and help customers select produce at peak flavor and pick it efficiently in ways that are respectful to the produce that remains in the field and to other customers. It continues to be an iterative learning process — we learn from our customers and vice versa.
We believe the land is a valuable resource that should be used sustainably and passed intact to future generations. By operating our business as a pick-your-own operation, customers come to us. In this way we are able to share our beautiful hill-top location and our rural environment with our many customers all summer long. In return, we ask our customers to cooperate with us, to respect our produce and our farm. The appreciation expressed by many customers for the opportunity to harvest their own fresh and flavorful produce from a diversity of choices has been and continues to be a prime motivator for our operation.