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Great Pumpkins Keep Family Traditions Alive, Even Through A Pandemic Thriving Agritourism Niche

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Above image credit: Sophie Blank (left) and brother Calvin pick pumpkins at Johnson Farm every year. Sophie says she likes the gourds best. (Cami Koons | Flatland)
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5 minute read

Jennifer and Tyler Blank have been going to Johnson Farms Plants and Pumpkins in Belton, Missouri, for almost a decade.

The tradition started when they were dating and now the couple brings their two children, Sophie (3) and Calvin (5), every October.

“This is our pumpkin patch,” Jennifer Blank said. “We come out here every year. It’s just beautiful out here and they always have great pumpkins.”

More than 80% of Americans plan to buy at least one pumpkin each fall, according to a study by Like turkey on Thanksgiving or singing at Christmas, the pumpkin patch has become a tradition for many.

Families find their patches and come back generation after generation.

Not only does it allow for great pictures and crisp, fall-scented memories, but going out to a pumpkin patch reminds visitors of the importance of farming.

The concept is known as agritourism. It’s a budding industry in both Kansas and Missouri encompassing everything from barn wedding venues to wineries and, of course, pumpkin patches.

“(Agritourism) is a way for farmers to be able to hold on to their small farms, by inviting people out,” Jeanne Johnson of Johnson Farms said.

Johnson and her husband moved to Belton a little over 20 years ago from Mexico, Missouri, to start a pumpkin patch and take advantage of the rolling hills and the large Kansas City market.

Today, it’s one of the key pumpkin farms in the region and welcomes about 25,000 visitors each fall.

“There’s plenty to go around,” Johnson said. “A lot of our customers will go around to the other (pumpkin patches). That’s just what they do. But I also have very loyal customers that only come here. They buy a season pass and come all fall long.”

Johnson’s farm is more than just a pumpkin patch and a hayride.

When you walk through the ticket gates there’s a giant ring filled with dried corn kernels that young ones can play in. They’re encouraged not to throw the corn, but the temptation is high.

To the left, is a wooden cow with rubber udders for a milking demonstration. Further down sits a slide made of old farm equipment. And scattered throughout the grounds are educational signs about the life of a pumpkin and other crops.

Everything is geared towards the farm.

“All along, I’ve always said I don’t want to be a carnival,” Johnson said. “We’ve always just been about harvesting.”

While pumpkin patches have embraced their role as an attraction with Instagrammable photo spots, an admission fee, and cider slushies, most of the farms in this area agree with Johnson. It’s about bringing people closer to agriculture.

It’s James Kerby’s goal at Kerby Farm in Bonner Springs, Kansas.

His farm has activities galore, all made from farm equipment.

“I’d rather have it kind of oriented towards the farm rather than (be) some big amusement park type thing,” Kerby said. “Kids, man, it doesn’t take a whole lot to let them have fun.”

At the patch, children can soar down a short zipline into hay, shoot hoops in a converted grain wagon, race through the corn maze, or use a well pump to win a duck race. Kerby said he tries to add one or two activities each year.

One of his favorites is the wooden pony lasso.

“I don’t know how many of them have any luck with that, but they sure give it a shot,” Kerby laughed.

The farms are full of photo opportunities. From goofy cutout characters, to pumpkin littered hay bales, the pumpkin patch is the perfect place to squeeze in a couple more family pictures for the holiday cards.

“Fall is such a pretty time of year,” Kerby said. “It’s kind of like your last chance before winter.”

Pumpkin patches offer perfect photo opportunities, like the pumpkin-covered truck at Kerby Farm.
Pumpkin patches offer perfect photo opportunities, like the pumpkin-covered truck at Kerby Farm. (Cami Koons | Flatland)

Since he started selling pumpkins in 2004, Kerby has also seen families come back year after year.

“You see those little ones every year get bigger and bigger and bigger and pretty soon they’re off to college,” Kerby said.

As much as it’s tradition for the customers, it’s tradition for the families who operate these farms.

Come October, Janet Schaake’s house is full with family. Everyone comes to help with pumpkin season.

Located just east of Lawrence, Kansas, Schaake’s Pumpkin Patch started as a 4-H project for Schaake’s children in 1974.

“Our kids started it as a 4-H project and it’s just grown from there into something we never expected it to,” Schaake said. “It has just grown every year since then.”

Five or so years after the family first sold pumpkins out of their truck, they transitioned to the U-pick format customers find today.

Schaake said the past two years have been exceptional years. Because it’s outside, inexpensive and spread out, pumpkin patches have been one tradition people didn’t have to forgo because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Janet and Larry Schaake have been selling pumpkins since 1974.
Janet and Larry Schaake have been selling pumpkins since 1974. (Cami Koons | Flatland)

The biggest change for pumpkin patches in the past year was the absence of school tours.

Normally, the farms open early for school trips. Classes come out, pick out pumpkins and learn a little bit about being on a farm.

Thankfully, the tours are coming back.

Mariah Dalsing, a teacher with St. Rose Philippine Duchesne Catholic School in Garnett, Kansas, said in the eight years she’s been teaching, last year was the only year her class went without a pumpkin patch visit.

“We do a life science lesson … and we do it over pumpkins every year, so we take them to the pumpkin patch,” Dalsing said.

This year, the kindergarten through second grade group from St. Rose visited Schaake’s Pumpkin Patch. After picking their pumpkins, the students ran around the playground and looked at nearby cows and ducks.

Dalsing said she missed being able to take the trip last year and is glad to be back.

“I think it’s important, especially for the kids that don’t see (a farm) every day, that they know, your hamburger doesn’t just come from the store … that people have to work really hard and put the time and the effort in to plant these things,” Dalsing said.

Like Johnson and Kerby, this was Schaake’s goal: to teach people about the farm through the pumpkin patch.

“When we started this, it was to introduce people to agriculture, we just wanted them to see what it was like to be on a farm,” Schaake said.

And those people come back year after year to get a little dirt on their shoes and bring home a farm-fresh pumpkin.

Cami Koons covers rural affairs for Kansas City PBS in cooperation with Report for America. The work of our Report for America corps members is made possible, in part, through the generous support of the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation.

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