by Sally Colby
Location is everything when it comes to drawing customers to fall activities on farms and ranches, and Vista Ranch is fortunate to have the perfect location.
“It’s the gateway to Yosemite,” explained Michaela De Jager, who manages the educational programs at The Pumpkin Patch at Vista Ranch in Merced, CA. “We like to say that we’re the best stop on the way to Yosemite. We get a lot of travellers from the San Francisco area, many bus tours and a lot of European visitors.”
De Jager’s ag education is the perfect background to conduct educational field trips for children. In addition to the 2,500 school children who visited the ranch last year, many adults, and especially European visitors, enjoy fall celebrations, and are interested in the custom of carving pumpkins. This season will mark the third year for the pumpkin patch at The Vista.
De Jager devotes many hours to developing an educational program that engages young students while teaching them about agriculture. She creates flyers to advertise the program, then visits the schools. “I try to take the flyers personally to all of the schools,” she said.
Through her work with youngsters, De Jager has found that many of them don’t know anything about farming. During their visit, children see a section of 18 of 20 ft. x 20 ft. growing plots that provide a snapshot of what happens on a farm. “They change through the seasons,” said De Jager. “We’ll grow strawberries, lettuce and broccoli in the cooler months, then tomatoes, corn, peppers, onions. We also have a mini vineyard.”
De Jager explains that the educational school trips are set up so that children spend a certain amount of time at each of several educational stations throughout the ranch. “Children select a pumpkin from a group of pre-picked small pumpkins, and we write their name on the bottom of the pumpkin and set it aside for them to pick up at the end of the activities,” she said. “The next station is a large American flag against a wall of hay bales where the groups are photographed. That’s also a game station where we can adjust the time if one group is running behind or ahead of schedule.” Games include cowboy roping using hula hoops tossed over the horns, a beanbag toss game and corn hole game. Next, the children visit the farm plots.
Age-appropriate riddles posted throughout the area encourage learning. For example, in front of the bell peppers, there’s a riddle to help them learn to identify that vegetable and learn some facts about it. De Jager explains the difference between permanent crops such as herbs to seasonal crops such as tomatoes, melons, corn and squash.
One popular area is the corn and cottonseed station created with hay bales. Children can play in the materials, but they also learn that those crops are grown to feed dairy cows. Next stop is the critter crater, which includes a border of heirloom pumpkins, corn, and sunflowers, with wildflowers and vegetables throughout the crater. De Jager teaches a pumpkin seed lesson in which the children guess which pumpkin — larger or smaller — will have more seeds. She explains that the exterior ridges on pumpkins correspond with the number of seeds inside, so a pumpkin with fewer ridges will have fewer seeds.
De Jager strives to keep the lessons interesting yet short enough to hold children’s attention. “We hope that they tell their parents what they’ve learned,” said Michaela. “Their parents are the ones who vote and make farming possible.”
For this year’s corn maze, De Jager enlisted the help of an experienced friend. The maze includes a section for very young children. “It’s all quick lefts,” said De Jager. “They go in, and turn left at the two forks and come right back out. It’s enough for young kids without interfering with the overall large design or difficulty of the whole maze.”
Although the cost per child is low, there is financial assistance for children whose families can’t afford to pay. Funding assistance is from Farmology, a consumer education program founded by California Women for Agriculture in 2001 and operated by the Agricultural Awareness and Literacy Foundation
For older visitors, the experience is promoted as a garden tour. “We sell the pass for half-price,” said De Jager. “There are paths throughout the pumpkin garden, and adults enjoy spending time at the winery. We’re the only winery in Merced county — we’re just ten miles out of town, but very rural.” From May through November, Vista Ranch hosts live music and dining events that draw visitors from throughout the area.
De Jager says that this year, they’re taking the field trip on the road. The Marchini family’s 1950s-era pickup truck will be used to deliver pumpkins to a site. The basic package will include delivery of pumpkins, while a deluxe package includes pumpkins along with an educational program. “We’ll take produce as well,” said De Jager. “We’ll do the whole field trip lesson plan — read a story, show them pumpkins on the vine and how they grow. It gives a lot more kids the opportunity, more flexibility and decreases the expense for schools.”
Marc Marchini, who plants the corn maze and small plots, describes Vista Ranch as a diverse two-family operation in which the De Jager family operates a dairy farm along with a feed division to supply the dairy, while the Marchini family grows fresh produce and specialty crops.
Each season, crop rotation includes spring, summer, fall and winter items. “It shows the diversity of our area,” said Marchini. “In California’s central valley, we can grow a lot of different crops throughout the year. It’s nice to have the small plots to showcase those items, and we use everything we harvest from those plots.”
To ensure maturity at the right time, the corn maze was planted in late July. Marchini explained that some of the pumpkins are planted for show and have lush vegetation during the harvest season, most of the pumpkins that will be sold are planted off-site. Marchini says that he carefully tracks production of the 40 different pumpkin varieties and plants according to projected sales. Drip irrigation and plastic mulch ensure plants have adequate moisture at critical times.
“What’s neat about our family is that we grow on a large scale, but we try to bring it down to the local level and grow small lots of a lot of different items so we can fill the farmers markets,” said Marchini. “It’s diverse, but it’s a place for people to come and see agriculture on a small scale.”
by Sally Colby