(as originally appeared on the Kansas City Star Online)
As the weather turns crisp and thoughts of hayrides, campfires and harvest waft through the air, many city-dwellers find themselves yearning for a trip to the country.
There’s just one problem. Few of us have family who are still out tilling the fields. So several generations into suburban life, we don’t have anywhere to gather our favorite symbol of autumn.
Enter the harvest pumpkin patch experience. For thousands in the metro area, this has become the perfect way to get a fall fix of Midwestern nostalgia. For the farmers who run them, experiential tourism has become a booming business that just seems to keep on growing.
While you-pick pumpkin patch operations all promise an opportunity to get out to the country and tune out from technology, the experiences at these pumpkin paradises are not all alike. Ranges of offerings and prices to play vary greatly. Some farmers have hundreds of acres and use a small portion of that land to entertain and help keep farming financially viable. Other farmers are in the business strictly for the agri-tourism opportunity with a few dozen acres and a spread tailor-made to attract a crowd.
KC Pumpkin Patch
West of Olathe, kids can whoosh down a large hill slide on burlap sacks. They can toss corn-shaped footballs and climb over a tractor tire “monster” buried in the dirt. They can crawl into a “cave” and peer down into a mirrored illusion of a deep mine. The 20-acre activity area includes a large bouncing pillow, mini zip-lines and a pumpkin launcher, which lets kids shoot baby pumpkins at targets with a “gourd gun.”
Owners Julie and Kirk Berggren are not traditional farmers. Though they grew up on farms, military life took them away from the land. As they moved around the country, the couple visited pumpkin patches and dreamed of having their own. When they landed back in the Kansas City area 13 years ago, they opened the KC Pumpkin Patch.
“I’ll never forget when the pumpkin plants started coming through that first year. I was just as excited as a kid at Christmas time,” Julie Berggren said.
They built a successful business, but lost a lease on the land they were using a couple of years ago and had to decide if the pumpkin patch was going to survive a move. Kirk Berggren still works full time as a pilot and has to travel with his job.
“We knew what it was going to take to physically pick up everything and move 13 years of tools and buildings,” Julie Berggren said. “We knew it would take more energy than possible to get it up and going.”
They prayed, pondered the decision and wrote it separately on pieces of paper. They decided to reopen the patch, which charges $9.95 per person.
“It was excruciatingly hard. We ended up building two businesses on the same farm in basically one year,” Julie Berggren said. The second business was their new winery, KC Wine Co., which takes up the northern section of the 40 acres of land they now own.
The actual pumpkin-growing area is a relatively small part of the 20 acres dedicated to the pumpkin patch. It is a compact space, created to give the feel of a full-size farm. After a year off and a new location, opening weekend was swamped with visitors.
Carolyn’s Country Cousins
At Carolyn’s Country Cousins pumpkin patch south of Liberty, the pace is fast and active. Visitors drive through lush, open-river-bottom land south of Old 210 Highway and arrive at a pumpkin wonderland. Carolyn’s offers hay wagon rides and you-pick pumpkins, but is also full of activities including a train the same size as the train at the Kansas City Zoo. The farm includes dozens of climbing structures, buildings, forts, slides and farm implements on which kids can explore and climb. Weekends include musical performances, pig races and the opportunity for parents to enjoy wine tastings with a souvenir glass. The patch has two stores and a restaurant.
Owner Carolyn Raasch said the family farm is still central to an experience that draws in about 100,000 visitors and requires 140 seasonal employees for its yearly six-week run. She and her husband farm several hundred acres in the area. The pumpkin patch, which started with her selling just a few pumpkins 24 years ago, has grown larger than she ever expected.
“I had no idea. I used to wash 50 pumpkins and put a price-tag on them and put a square on them out here or go to Liberty Fall Festival. I had no idea people would come out and pay to visit,” Raasch said.
Despite the large pumpkin patch operation, Raasch and her husband, Buddy, are still primarily farmers. The pumpkin patch season is also their busy harvest season, requiring Raasch to sometimes take time off from the pumpkin patch to go help in the fields.
The farming helps out with building the pumpkin patch. The hay they use in the activity area is baled off the land they use for parking. They already own heavy equipment, which can come in handy building all those activities for the kids. The Raaschs own enough land they can rotate the pumpkin crops in five different fields. Like most pumpkin patch owners, Raasch’s husband and sons built many of the amenities in the play area.
“Being such a short season you just don’t have that much time to have somebody come in and do something. If you can just do it yourself it works out so much better,” Raasch said of the vast operation, which charges adults $10 Monday through Thursday, and $12 Friday through Sunday.
Barn cats head up the welcome brigade at Pumpkins Etc. outside Platte City. Visitors will not find ticket-takers at the front entrance. There are no slides, gold-panning stands, jumping pillows or play-sets. They do have the standard “How tall this fall?” picture spot and two mazes, one made from hay bales and one cut into the grass. “The corn can cut the kids,” explains owner/operator Kathy Wright.
An old barn, which was not fit for modern farming, serves as a shop where kitties and kiddies can intermingle as the little ones learn about farming and parents enjoy a relaxed day in the country.
The low-key you-pick pumpkin patch has been in business for 31 years. What started with a mom who was looking for a way to keep her four kids entertained, has steadily avoided the march toward “bigger and better” that many competitors have embraced.
“We have on purpose decided not to commercialize,” Wright said. “We don’t have a pumpkin fairy and the train. We just kept it simple. Our customers have told us not to change anything.”
Wright said her customers come to for the quiet relaxation — no pressure.
“They don’t have to buy anything,” Wright said. “We tell them to come as much as they want. Play and eventually they will buy stuff.”
Paying for ‘Edutainment’
While these and other pumpkin patches dotting the outskirts of Kansas City were born of very different experiences, they rely on the same clientele.
Linda Craghead, assistant secretary of the Kansas Department of Wildlife Parks and Tourism, said most people are at least two generations removed from the family farm.
“They remember that experience as a kid going out to the farm, and they crave that opportunity to share that experience, but they don’t have their own family farm to go back to,” she said.
Craghead explains agri-tourism opportunities like pumpkin patches usually offer an “edutainment” experience that goes beyond just giving an opportunity to pick pumpkins. The pumpkin patches attempt to educate about farming, and offer a fun and safe way for people to get outside and reconnect with agricultural roots.
Agri-tourism also allows customers to enjoy the benefits of being on a farm without all of the risk and hard work. These ventures are varied and growing in popularity, with about 350 registered agri-tourism businesses in Kansas and more than 700 in Missouri.
The pumpkin patch business is very hard work for the farmers. Seasons are short, usually about six weeks, but tens of thousands of families and groups of schoolchildren plow through the gates during that time. During the season, owners work 17 to 18 hours a day. Preparations for the next year start the moment the pumpkin patch shuts down at the end of October.
“We are already thinking about what we want to do next year before this year even gets started,” Julie Berggren said.
Owners like Terri and Jim Kerby, who own Kerby Farm Pumpkin Patch in Bonner Springs and gear their pumpkin patch experience more toward younger families, feel the hard work of the experience. Both work full-time jobs, so they are only able to open their 80-acre farm to the public on weekends.
“A lot of people don’t realize how hard of work it is,” Terri Kerby said, adding that it’s difficult to keep costs down.
Those expenses creep up because of the added amenities. The Kerbys try to keep a lower price point, but the zip lines, hayrides, play equipment and farm animals all cost money. They had to raise their entry prices to $7 this year.
“We’ve been told people come out and enjoy it,” Terri Kerby said. “It makes us feel good, and each year we try to add a little more, but it’s not a city park. We’re just trying to keep things as reasonable as possible, because if you are a family of four or five it adds up.”
Raasch at Carolyn’s Pumpkin Patch explains the charging for more than just pumpkins started with hayrides, then the school groups that wanted educational programming. The extra staff required to handle the crowd all adds up. Now ticket prices are $12 a head for everyone over the age of 2.
Even with creative reuse of materials, borrowing ideas and building structures themselves, those amenities can get pretty pricey.
“It costs a lot of money to look cheap,” Julie Berggren said.
Not all charge an entry fee, but their amenities are likely to be more low-key to keep overhead low.
The Fun Farm in Kearney, which also charges a $12 entry fee, opened in 2014 and had 20,000 visitors in its first year. Tommy and Anna Christopher, who are traditional produce farmers, figured a pumpkin patch would be a good way to cut down on the hassle of the wholesale business.
“We raised pumpkins for a while,” Anna Christopher said. “We decided it would a whole lot easier, rather than taking all these pumpkins into town and trying to find a place to sell them for two months.”
To sweeten the incentive to get people to come buy the pumpkins (and mums), they decided it would be a good idea to “add some fun stuff” to do.
In just their second year they now have a corn maze with trails constructed in a design meant to honor service employees; a corn pit under a huge canopy which contains 5,000 bushels of corn for play; several picture-perfect red and white buildings housing farm animals; fire pits for customers to rent; and the piece de résistance: bathrooms with running water.
“What I learned last year is that moms come out and use the Johnny on the Spot and don’t like not having a really good place to wash their hands. So that was a priority this year,” Tommy Christopher said.
While the Christophers say it’s doubtful the pumpkin patch resulted in less work, or even if it will be worth the considerable investment, they do admit it may be more fun for the community.
Most owners are used to getting calls from family and friends wondering whether they need any help, just for the good time of being at the pumpkin patch.
It is a good thing people enjoy the entertainment value of the experience, because the you-pick part is not always terribly authentic. Here is a behind-the-scenes spoiler alert for the less observant: It is likely that not all of the pumpkins sitting out there in the field actually grew there. Yes, most of the farmers did actually grow pumpkins, but particularly in wet years, like this one, most farmers have to buy pumpkins from other places to supplement the supply.
Most customers do not seem to mind this fact, or they do not even notice, because they just keep coming.
Carolyn Raasch believes it is because they simply want the chance to play in the dirt. She sees a lot of the same faces through the years, she says.
“It’s such a good opportunity to have people come out,” Raasch said. “They are enjoying themselves. You don’t have to go to a fancy place to have fun with your kids. You just can come out and enjoy the fresh air.”
Julie Berggren noted that when they didn’t open last year, they heard about it.
“It was heartbreaking to not be able to be a part of their families,” Julie Berggren said. “But we’re back, and we have about 21,000 people who like us on Facebook. We take that as a compliment, and we have been so blessed. This is so much fun, and we want to work hard to be a part of people’s family tradition.”