by Gail March Yerke
It’s early November and the Schuett family has gathered around the kitchen table to review the past season at their pumpkin farm in southeastern Wisconsin. According to Rob Schuett, the planning for the following year begins as soon as that year’s season ends. “Together we talk about what went well, what needs a tweak or two and what new things we can add for next year,” he explained.
Rob and wife Linda, along with sons Brian and Scott and their families, operate Schuett Farms LLC in rural Mukwonago, WI. During pumpkin season “even our five grandchildren help out,” said Linda.
Over 25 acres of pumpkins and gourds supply enough product for all of their on-farm sales and U-pick pumpkin patch. Planting begins in early June with Cronus, one of their favorite varieties, as well as smaller pie pumpkins. Like many farms in Wisconsin the fields are not irrigated and depend on seasonal rainfall. A wide assortment of autumn decorations are produced on the farm including gourds, Indian corn, straw bales, corn stalks and giant display pumpkins.
But it’s more than pumpkins and decorations that draw people to visit the Schuett Farm. It’s the experience.
Along the highway as you approach the farm you are greeted by their large, signature round hay bales painted bright orange with smiling, carved pumpkin faces. The entrance welcomes visitors with a kaleidoscope of autumn color and a sea of orange to the right. Customers can choose from hundreds of pumpkins lined up by size for quick and easy selection. Parking for over 100 vehicles is just past their oldest barn displaying a colorful barn quilt.
An easy 30-minute drive from the metropolitan Milwaukee area, the family hosts school and group tours throughout October. “We draw from Wisconsin as well as Illinois,” said Rob. Besides their steady weekday traffic and group tours, a typical October weekend draws several thousand visitors to the Waukesha County farm. There is no charge for entrance or parking, just individual pricing for activities and refreshments. Pumpkin and gourd prices vary according to size, from pie size to the larger carving and display pumpkins. Favorite treats include apple cider and sliced caramel apples.
One of the more popular activities at the farm is the corn maze. It covers 15 acres with more than three miles of path. “Brian and his wife Melissa design a different maze each year. It starts on a simple graph paper drawing and about mid-July the actual design is cut into the field,” Rob explained. The maze operates during daytime hours; they host a nighttime maze on weekends. They place overhead floodlights at certain points and participants bring their own flashlights.
The family bought the farm in 1958 and have diversified over the years, now farming over 1,200 acres. Schuett Farms also grows soybeans and corn and raises beef cattle. Brian and Melissa and family raise the sweetcorn sold through the summer months and Scott and Paula and their family coordinate the Christmas season sales.
Advertising is focused on their website and Facebook page. Rob is active in the Wisconsin Farm Bureau, Wisconsin Agritourism Association and Waukesha County Fair. “We add something new to the pumpkin farm each year,” he said, “and the Wisconsin Agritourism Association is a great resource.”
Across the country in the northeast corner of Colorado Springs, CO, Long Neck Pumpkin Farm is another successful fall farm operation. While both farms rely on friends and family members for help during the busy season, their business models couldn’t be more different.
Candy and Kevin Longnecker bought their property 20 years ago and started their pumpkin farm in 2015. Kevin is a retired landscaper and Candy is a former kindergarten teacher. With almost 500,000 people in the Colorado Springs area, their 14-acre parcel is quickly being surrounded by and benefitting from the residential housing boom.
While the smaller physical size of the agribusiness may limit what they actually grow on the property, they make it work. The U-pick pumpkin patch is just under an acre, planted with the Scream II variety. They chose the early hybrid with semi-compact growth for easy pathways. With their limited high desert rainfall, the field is irrigated from a nearby pond. “This year was a late planting because of the colder spring,” Kevin said. “Some areas were replanted because of poor germination.”
“Besides the pumpkins we grow, we bring in about five semi truck loads of pumpkins each fall from nearby Pueblo,” he continued. “At night the ‘pumpkin fairy’ visits our pumpkin patch.” The farm also offers corn stalks, Indian corn and hay bales. Their Craft Country Store displays gift and home decor and concession stands sell refreshments.
Long Neck Pumpkin Farm collects a $10 entrance fee that includes all games and activities on the property. “Most people stay here two to three hours,” Kevin said. “We draw from as far away as the Denver area. People in Colorado will travel to two or three pumpkin farms the same day.” Some of their more popular activities include hay wagon rides, the giant hay bale slide, a bean bag toss, tractor tire swings and a large play area for children. Kevin has a penchant for restoring old tractors and trucks and many are used on the farm. He especially likes the old Farmall tractors and uses some of them to pull the hay wagon rides.
Families across the country are looking for more than just picking up a pumpkin from a grocery store or parking lot today. They are looking to connect with the farm that it came from. As more farms offer this experience, with a bit of nostalgia and entertainment to boot, one more facet of agritourism continues to grow.