by Sally Colby
Dave Pearce’s background and experience is in agriculture so it wasn’t a stretch when he started growing pumpkins on his Bismarck, ND farm.
“In 1978, my mother and I started a hydroponic greenhouse and grew tomatoes and other vegetables,” said Dave. “That was under plastic and we heated with coal to grow year-round. For about nine years, Mom and I ran Papa’s Greenhouse where we grew tomatoes and cucumbers and some lettuce.”
Dave added watermelon, cantaloupe and several other crops and offered those for sale. “It was like taking a trip to the farm,” said Dave, regarding the customers who came to purchase fresh vegetables. “But the pumpkins were the happiest accident.”
Dave recalls that a man by the name of Chuck from Allied Moving and Storage came to him because he needed a semi loaded with pumpkins. “He planned to give the pumpkins away in the Folk Fest Parade in Bismarck, North Dakota in 1983,” said Dave. “At that time it was actually Octoberfest and part of Chuck’s marketing plan for the moving company was to hand out little pumpkins to children as the semi made its way down the parade route. So, I planted pumpkins.”
But in June, the city fathers announced that because of all the rain and because it’s so cold in October, Bismarck was going to abandon Octoberfest and move it 30 days earlier into September so the weather would be better for an outdoor, downtown celebration. Moving the date meant the pumpkins wouldn’t be ready and Chuck’s marketing plan wouldn’t work.
Dave had little choice but to leave the pumpkins in the field and wait until they turned orange. Meanwhile, he invited several first-grade teachers to bring their students to harvest the pumpkins. “I was still growing tomatoes and cucumbers,” said Dave. “That was my bread and butter and growing pumpkins was just a wild idea. But the kids came out, picked the pumpkins and had an absolute blast. That was year one. In 1984, instead of planting acres of pumpkins, I planted about 1,000 in ten rows. By the time the teachers were done sharing with their neighbors, I had 1,300 children scheduled to come to the pumpkin patch and I had to go buy pumpkins from my neighbor.”
After about five years of growing pumpkins, Dave realized it was a viable enterprise. “By that time, we were up to about 10,000 kids,” he said. “I ran the greenhouse for a few more years then sold that operation and started doing the pumpkins so it became the pumpkin patch it is today, 35 years later. On a Saturday or Sunday, we’ll see 750 to 1,000 cars in the lot.”
Like other pumpkin growers, Dave deals with the usual insect pests and cucurbit diseases every year. “We rotate,” he said, “or the insects and disease come in. Powdery mildew comes in and we have problems with wilt.” But a good IPM program and crop rotation helped Dave achieve good yields and he became known for growing pumpkins. “As we continued to see diversity in our crowds, we started growing gourds and different shapes,” said Dave. “We watched public reaction to the different ones and now grow ten varieties of pumpkins and ten varieties of squash.”
To keep things interesting, Dave tries something new every year. With the addition of numerous fall attractions and many people visiting the farm, parking became an issue but adding parking space meant less growing space. Dave says it would have been more detrimental to try to park people offsite than to find farmers within a five-mile radius to grow for him. “We can haul pumpkins easier than we can haul people,” said Dave, explaining his decision to turn cropland into parking lot and use offsite growing acreage. “The fact is we can’t grow the same crop on the same field year after year without running into glitches, so the ability to move around is important.”
Papa’s Pumpkin Patch now has eight pumpkin growers. Some of the rented ground is the middle eight acres of center pivot irrigation that isn’t easy for the farmer to manage with large equipment. “Every time he waters and fertilizes his corn, he waters and fertilizes our pumpkins,” said Dave. “The corn grows up fast and the bees can still get in and pollination is generally good.”
Despite some of the pumpkins being grown offsite, visitors to the farm see plenty of pumpkins in the field as they arrive. “Very seldom does anyone want to go out to the field and pick one,” said Dave. “They’re happy to pick from what they see.”
Activities are a big draw and Dave is always working on something new and unique to add to the lineup. Visitors enjoy giant corn bins filled with corn, bale mazes, sturdy wooden play structures and nature trails. There are also plenty of photo opportunities throughout the farm.
Although there are about 25 activities at Papa’s, none are haunted. “In the beginning, we created a little graveyard with headstones and skeletons hanging from the trees,” said Dave. “But we had more comments from parents who appreciated the fact that the focus was on fall harvest and not Halloween. It also makes sense for us climatologically in North Dakota. Come the end of October, we have our first snowfall. We’re getting nights that could easily dip temperatures to 15 degrees, so collecting and covering everything to keep it from freezing at night becomes a huge effort.”
Each of the activities on the farm is manned by various non-profit organizations and Papa’s shares the proceeds. Volunteer groups include schools, sports teams, scouts, 4-H, FFA and other non-profits. To date, Papa’s is closing in on one million dollars in donations to charities and beneficiaries. “We’ve been called the United Way of pumpkin patches,” said Dave. “It’s all generated from the pumpkin patch. We have a team of about 100 to 120 volunteers on any given weekend and anyone on the team knows about the pay it forward fund and can suggest an organization to help. It’s based on the concept that everybody wins.”
Dave describes the pay it forward concept as “the spirit of the people who come here and the way they express appreciation for their experience.” It started when one customer didn’t have the correct change at the cash register. “The cashier owed the customer two dollars in change,” Dave explained. “The guest said, ‘oh, just keep it for someone else.’ The cashier tucked it aside and sure enough, someone came through the line and needed an extra dollar. The gal at the register said, ‘someone just walked through and paid it forward so I have an extra dollar.’ That customer who didn’t have the dollar pulled out a five and said ‘here, add this to the pile’. By the end of the day, there was $22 accumulated from people paying it forward.” Dave says that paying it forward gets started every season and every season they end up ahead. “It’s not because I want $20 extra at the end of the day,” he said. “It’s the spirit. You have to plant the seed before you get the harvest.”
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