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Freshly picked blackberries, which are soon to be jam.EXPAND
Freshly picked blackberries, which are soon to be jam.
Taylor Adams

How One Farm Is Thriving During the Pandemic

Pure Land Farm is in its third year of summer picking — people from around North Texas visit the McKinney Farm to get fresh fruits and vegetables straight from the ground.

Organic growth in attendees is expected, but last year, the father-daughter duo who run the farm wasn’t expecting the spike they’ve seen this summer.

“It was crazy, in a good way,” says Megan Neubauer, who owns the farm with father Jack. “What we’re kind of wrestling with now is how much was COVID-driven: Camps were closed, schools were closed, so the demand was bananas.”

Megan Neubauer with her father JackEXPAND
Megan Neubauer with her father Jack
courtesy of Megan Neubauer

Neubauer posts updates on social media that indicate when their website will show reservation times for the next picking. We found success by setting alerts for their page on Instagram, seeing the next sign-up time, setting a timer on the phone, having the website loaded that day and logging on as soon as the phone’s alarm went off. At that moment, with no delay, two of the three available slots for the next picking day were already booked. The first one, at 9 a.m., still had plenty.

Minutes later, that would be booked, too.

“[This year] really wasn’t a change for us: We’ve always done the reservation system to keep it calm because we don’t like lines, we have a limited parking lot and I could not stand the thought of driving out an hour and getting turned away — or standing in a line with two hours is not how we roll,” Neubauer says. “The only changes we really made were adding some bleach to our buckets [and] obviously masks to our checkouts.”

Instructions greet guests as they approach the handwashing station.EXPAND
Instructions greet guests as they approach the handwashing station.
Taylor Adams

Picking season is coming to a close at Pure Land — Neubauer says there are two weeks, maximum, left — and the blackberries are plump and dark, with plenty more coming as of last Wednesday. The line to get in was long, only because people were socially distancing as they waited to get to the handwashing station and table where they could collect their baskets and plastic bags.

The picking fields feel huge — the farm, which has no synthetic pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers or other additives, has 28 acres. Social distancing has never felt so easy here, which was advantageous so you could roam freely.

When Neubauer does “full-farm picks” (includes cucumbers, onions and more) they let in 50 people an hour; blackberry-only picks are 80 people. Numbers haven’t changed this year because they didn’t have to (mostly thanks to that limited parking lot).

And with limited options for safe activities, that means spots have gone fast.

“The only downside to all the demand is dealing with disappointed people every week, hundreds of disappointed people; I just can’t change it,” Neubauer says. “Even if you do everything right, and you just refresh [the website] just 10 seconds off, you’re not going to get your info fast enough.”

Thousands of people have been trying to land spots at Pure Land Farm to pick their own blackberries: It takes good timing and some luck, it's been so popular this year.EXPAND
Thousands of people have been trying to land spots at Pure Land Farm to pick their own blackberries: It takes good timing and some luck, it's been so popular this year.
Taylor Adams

She points out — and has on their Instagram feed — that two weeks ago there were 6,000 people on the site at one time vying for 150 spots.

“There’s no way to make that work,” she says.

Neubauer normally puts available spots up for one day. One time this season, she tried listing four days with 800 spots: Those filled up in 10 minutes.

“The demand is really higher this year: It’s also the third year we’ve done it, so how much is organic growth? It’s grown every year,” she says. “But we have never ever had it where the spots are instantly full.”

In previous years, it would take an entire day to fill 150 spots.

Many people come with young children in tow; the farm is spacious enough to keep distance while keeping kids entertained for a while.EXPAND
Many people come with young children in tow; the farm is spacious enough to keep distance while keeping kids entertained for a while.
Taylor Adams

“Every farmer I know is having a great year; empty grocery store shelves freak people out,” she says. “It’s all the people on Instagram making sourdough, I think the foodies were like, ‘I have the time to do some of this more foodier stuff,’ and every farmer I know that has made the pivot to retail is doing really well.”

If you land a spot in the next available picking days, you’ll meet Neubauer: She’s always there, and probably operating the checkout counter, which sits under a white tent — you must wear masks here, of course. Her husband, Allan Couch, assists by taking extra care of the kids and house during these summer months that demand the most out of her and her father, May through July.

For regular customers, such as Erika Radke, time picking produce here is about more than getting sustenance.

"We really enjoy how fresh the vegetables and fruit are, but the main reasons we go is to connect with nature, to feel dirt between our fingers, and to know what real food looks like and where it comes from," says Radke, who visits the farm two to three times a month during the season with her two children, a preteen and a teenager. "I think a very important way to stay healthy and maintain a strong mind-body connection is to be aware of what we put into our bodies and how it affects our well-being, and I try to convey that to my children as well."

Last week, the farm's other goods were available for purchase at their pop-up market; no self-picking required.EXPAND
Last week, the farm's other goods were available for purchase at their pop-up market; no self-picking required.
Taylor Adams

Our recent blackberry picking cost nearly $50. We picked a lot (and bought an enormous cucumber): The following weekend involved serious jam making. At $7 a pound, it’s about what you’d pay at a farmers market. You could look at it as an inconvenience of doing work yourself and paying for it. But these days, something to do outside with your household is refreshing, and — let’s face it — really wholesome feels right in these times.

If you grew up with a parent or grandparent who grew these wonderful berries, you know that earthy, sweet taste that doesn’t exist in the blackberries from grocery stores. That same flavor, one that somehow includes the taste of the sun, exists in these berries.

Plans for next year — which hopefully involve healthier times — mean expanding some things but in no way drastically changing their operations, Neubauer says.

“What we’re trying to figure out next year is how do we diversify in ways that are not more plants — we will fill the space that we have, but what are the other things that we can do? Because we’re trying to balance,” she says. ”Me and Dad don’t really want to be an empire, and I’ve got my little crew that is just the perfect size for us. What we do is grow food: We’re not an amusement park, just trying to make it a destination but keeping the focus on the food.”

There are just a few days of picking left at this farm, so keep up to date on its Facebook or Instagram.

Pure land Farm, 7505 County Road, 201, McKinney. 469-795-8585.

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