By Jeff Tribe
It was an energetic eight-month-old equivalent of “two-thumbs-up” for a highly-successful inaugural Berrylicious Fruit Farm taste test.
“First fresh off-the-bush blueberry,” smiled young Gavin Allison’s mom, Brittany. “He’s pretty happy,” she continued, rewarding his enthusiasm with a second bright, blue-hued treat. “They definitely taste pretty good.”
The two had made the trip from the Ingersoll area along with aunt Dana Hammond, an excursion combining family, fruit and foraging. “A nice summer day,” Hammond summed up. “It’s like 15 minutes away, and blueberries are fun.”
Beyond each other’s company, the sisters enjoy both fresh and baked blueberries, part of dietary choices Brittany admits have been enhanced with the arrival of her son.
“I eat better because of him.”
And while all three gave their stamp of approval to this blueberry variety, they were in the process of moving on to potentially “bluer’ pastures, testing out a selection or two from six additional options.
“We’re going to pick another variety to taste the difference,” Hammond explained.
In a nutshell – or berry basket – their outing sums up elements crucial to the Berrylicious brand: varied top-quality product within the value-added framework of a beautiful, indisputably rural setting and productive, enjoyable experience.
“We are passionate about our farm business every single day,” says co-owner Wendy Colcuc. “I hope that’s what people remember -- we are passionate about our products, providing a great experience, along with some agricultural awareness. These are the reasons we go to work each day."
“We want people to leave here satisfied and wanting to come back again,” added her life and business partner, husband Don. “That is the highest compliment people can pay to us.”
A desire to return to their own rural roots – she off a Simcoe County dairy farm, he from a fruit farm/tree nursery in the fruit-laden Niagara-On-The-Lake region – led them to purchase their 425533 Substation Road, Burgessville farm in 2002. Its sandy soil formerly grew tobacco, and surrounding woodlots provide an ideal microclimate for berry production. They planted four acres of blueberries in 2004, a fifth in 2014 and cover them with netting in season to prevent bird predation. They have diversified with the addition of elderberries and raspberries. In conjunction with a transition from wholesale to direct-to-consumer marketing initiatives, they also grow pumpkins and other produce to support an onsite market and seasonal forays to farmer’s markets in Woodstock and London.
Their approach is quite literally “hands on” by either pick-your-own or employing an all-local, mainly teenaged labour force of between 30 and 35 for those who prefer to have their berries plucked for them.
“I’m not competing against the high-volume mechanical-harvested fruit from who knows where,” Don emphasizes. “It’s a hand-picked product, it’s a premium product. And there is no intention to compete. They have their market and we have ours – there is room for everyone.”
But even the best product requires marketing, a challenge underlined by what conversely is a tangible Berrylicious strength, its comparatively isolated rural setting down a gravel byway.
“I feel with our rural location, we have to work that much harder to bring people out to the farm,” said Wendy. “Once they visit the farm and see how beautiful it is they’ll be back, but it is a challenge.”
Ensuring the best possible experience for returning customers while reaching out to potential newcomers is a multi-faceted challenge for the farm couple, who like many compatriots, share roles ranging through production to marketing and sales, which in a corporate environment would be filled by a numerically much larger cast of human resources.
Branding and communication are vital to the effort, says Wendy.
“We do it every step of the way.”
Beyond good, old-fashioned directional signage along paved roads at either end of their section of Substation, they have added a logo-forward sign at the end of their lane, and high-quality full-colour printed material. Word-of-mouth can be a powerful tool not to be underestimated, says Wendy, including personal interaction with customers at farmers’ markets. Berrylicious advertises on local radio stations in season and also has an active social media presence, including Facebook and Instagram (@berryliciousff).
There is no specific schedule for posting, says Wendy, although they have more of a presence in the space in season, cutting social media posts back to roughly once per week during the offseason. “Just to remind people we are still here.”
There is an effort to keep their material as fresh as their fruit, mixing content up. “We do have themes which we’ll use to help vary the posts,” said Wendy. “You don’t want to get stale.”
She adds the decision to transition responsibility for Berrylicious’ social media posts to young people was an undeniably beneficial one.
“They’re fast, they’re efficient and they just breathe new life into social media.”
A summer student also revamped their website (http://www. berryliciousfruit.ca) featuring seasonal information, recipes and videos in 2021, with similarly positive results.
Being active in social media is “pretty important”, says Wendy, as are Google reviews, where patrons can rank and post comments on their experience. There are people who may not visit their website, she says, “but they’ll see the Google reviews.”
The website and social media presence provide an effective and wide-ranging opportunity to connect with the public. “Having people share a message can be a very powerful tool,” says Wendy.
It also brings the potential for the public to directly message Berrylicious.
“The expectation is you’ll get back to them in a timely manner,” says Wendy. “It’s fantastic the places you can reach, but it is an extra layer and it’s constant, it’s constant during the season.”
Reaching out through various means to new and existing customers is constant and vital, however pride in product and attention to detail truly begins onsite, with the unique qualities of the “pick-your-own” experience.
“We personalize it when possible,” says Wendy, who greets many returnees by name, and takes newcomers into the berry patch herself when time allows, showing off and explaining the difference between two or three different sample varieties.
“After a taste test, they can pick the variety they like the best.”
Beyond the satisfaction of harvesting one’s own fruit, there are the intangibles familiar to rural dwellers, far removed from many urban settings. “There is peace and quiet,” Don sums up. “No sirens going off, they can look around and see no other houses.”
Wendy believes there are calming attributes to repetitive berry picking motions, mental and physical benefits several groups of ladies, in particular, enjoy during an annual blueberry pilgrimage. “They consider this berry therapy,” she smiled, adding, “I think people appreciate the whole experience.”
It’s an opportunity formalized through Berrylicious’ Picnic In The Patch initiative, which evolved from a 2018 workshop offered through Oxford Tourism on experiential tourism. In broad terms, a “picnic” begins with an agricultural education tour hosted by Wendy, a taste test of around five varieties, picking a bucket of the preferred option and one of four picnic options in a designated private area, followed by vintage games for the guests, like a deck of cards, a bubble wand or a frisbee.
Picnic In The Patch is available six days of the week, attracting 40 groups in 2021.
“It’s growing,” said Wendy. “People seem to enjoy some unplugged time with family and friends.”
Berrylicious is also a foundational member of The Gravel Trail, a partnership with four very local businesses located five to seven minutes apart including Gunn’s Hill Cheese, Wild Comfort (Simply.natural.skincare) and Greener Pastures Eco Farm.
“It’s a real micro tour,” says Wendy, which runs Thursdays for 11 weeks from early July to mid September. It offers added value in both the sense participants can see, for example, a soap-making demonstration, and also make their day more varied and productive, more options for their drive, so to speak. It has also helped enhance what was a slower day for the host participants, through cooperation. “And everyone benefits,” said Wendy.
There are definitely challenges in shifting from the thinner margins of the wholesale world into the value-added realm of branded, personalized experience, innovation and modernization of the old adage around “selling the sizzle along with the steak.” It has not been easy for the Colcucs and their four children who are all involved in the operation. Wendy says they have spent a decade building the business to its current position and look to continue to build on that – but the journey thus far has definitely been both rewarding and satisfying.
“It’s just what you do, you do it because you enjoy it,” said Don.
“And we want to do it well,” Wendy concluded. ◊