Pumpkin Patches Becoming Big Attractions
October 18th, 2013
Lincoln, NE — Pick-your-own pumpkin patches have likely been around as long as pumpkins have been part of fall celebrations. But recently in Nebraska theyâ€™ve grown in number, size, scope and attendance.[audio:https://kvnonews.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/pumpkinpatches.mp3]
Valaâ€™s Pumpkin Patch near Gretna is one of those places where you can pick your own pumpkin. But there is more: animals to feed, 23 places to get food, seven places to shop, live entertainment, rides and enough other activities to fill a guide map that resembles what youâ€™d get at an amusement park like Worlds of Fun in Kansas City. Itâ€™s grown a lot since Tim and Jan Vala started the business 29 years ago; and crowds have grown as well.
â€œWeâ€™ve become more and more popular,â€ Tim Vala says. â€œA lot of the people come back and we have a lot of season pass holders, so weâ€™re pretty fortunate we have a pretty loyal following.â€
Thatâ€™s often evident by long lines of slow moving weekend traffic on the two lane road to Valaâ€™s. Last year the pumpkin patch drew 200,000 people, according to Tim Vala. That makes it one of the top three non-state park attractions in Nebraska, trailing only Henry Doorly Zoo and the Omaha Childrenâ€™s Museum â€“ and Valaâ€™s is only open for 42 days in September and October. Tim Vala says itâ€™s fair to call this a multi-million dollar business, and he believes itâ€™s one of the largest attractions of this type in the country. But itâ€™s not just Valaâ€™s.
â€œThe pumpkin patch phenomenon Â has really exploded in the last ten years,â€ says Kathy McKillup, director of the Nebraska Tourism Commission.
Nebraska Tourism Commission statistics show that last year Roca Berry Farm south of Lincoln drew 50,000 people; Bellevue Berry Farm and Pumpkin Ranch in Papillion drew 20,000; and Poppyâ€™s Pumpkin Patch near Norfolk drew 10,000. All told, there are probably 40 pumpkin patch attractions in two dozen counties across the state.
McKillup says pumpkin patch attractions are becoming lucrative examples of what she calls agri-ecotourism.
â€œWeâ€™re seeing a lot more pop up,â€ McKillup says. â€œWe have some more smaller ones popping up as theyâ€™re starting to get into the market or supplement other industries like product for them to go and sell at their stands. We used to have a lot of you picks several decades ago and then they didnâ€™t quite move along with the industry or move along with the interest, if you will. So they had to come back and re-invent themselves. By doing so, there has to be a little bit of engagement in different activities for all kinds to go experience.â€
Charlie Touchette, executive director of the North American Farmersâ€™ Direct Marketing Association, says the pumpkin patch attraction industry is growing throughout North America.
â€œReally what weâ€™re seeing is the growth of small businesses,â€ Touchette says. â€œThey started out as pumpkin patches, but theyâ€™re tending to go where their customers seem to be taking them. Itâ€™s kind of crazy. What may have started out as a little tiny pumpkin patch or a little tiny apple orchard is now a pretty good employer, at least within a season.â€
Valaâ€™s, for instance, employs more than 600 people this time of year, many part-time, along with a handful of full-time, year-round employees. Thatâ€™s in addition to family, including Tim and Janâ€™s three adult daughters, all whom have grown up helping run the family business.
The pumpkin patch industry has likely received a boost from increased interest in Halloween; the holiday is now second only to Christmas in retail sales. But Tim Vala, who says his attraction is more fall festival than Halloween attraction, believes family and Nebraskaâ€™s agricultural heritage are other reasons interest in starting and going to pumpkin patches is growing.
â€œMy wife and I, we both grew up and had grandpaâ€™s farm to go to,â€ Vala says. â€œWeâ€™d spend some time out in the summer out at grandpaâ€™s farm. The generation coming up doesnâ€™t have that opportunity. They donâ€™t have a grandpaâ€™s farm because weâ€™re getting more and more disconnected from agriculture. So I think just being out at an old farmstead and seeing the old barns and seeing that agriculture part of it is kind of a real attraction too.â€
â€œI think thereâ€™s a certain culture, a certain tradition, a certain heritage in the United States where folks do want to get out and hang out on a farm any given weekend,â€ Touchette adds.
Itâ€™s not an easy way to make a living. Vala says this time of year heâ€™s working pretty much every waking hour. Thereâ€™s also a lot of risk when all your income comes in a short period of time, and youâ€™re an outdoor attraction.
â€œThe risk part is the weather, because itâ€™s an outside activity,â€ Vala says. â€œItâ€™s just not a lot of fun to be out here if itâ€™s 45 degrees, raining and winds blowing 30 miles an hour. Weâ€™ve had good years and bad years. It all kind of evens out.â€
â€œItâ€™s just one of those things where you have to expect to have a couple bad weekends and youâ€™ve got to plan for it,â€ adds Josh Kadavy, owner of JKâ€™s Pumpkin Patch. â€œWe plan for that by making sure that weâ€™re prepared for the next weekend.â€
Kadavy runs one of Nebraska newer pumpkin patch attractions, but heâ€™s no stranger to the business. He helped manage another patch for several years. Three years ago he decided to chase a dream, and started JKâ€™s on his farm north of Lincoln. Itâ€™s smaller than Valaâ€™s, more typical of most Nebraska attractions, and geared toward young kids and families. Kadavy lost money the first two years. Like other operations drought hurt his crop last year, so he had to bring in pumpkins for the attraction. But this year heâ€™s making a profit, and attendance for the three days a week JKâ€™s operates is on track to top 10 thousand.
â€œItâ€™s one of those operations, quite frankly, that you just feel so good about doing what you do because not only is it just a business where youâ€™re selling somebody something, youâ€™re giving them an experience,â€ Kadavy says. â€œYouâ€™re giving them something that they can enjoy.â€
â€œYouâ€™re seeing more growth in ag tourism right now, more than anything,â€ Kadavy adds. â€œI mean the pumpkin patch industry, the competition is growing significantly.â€
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