by Aliya Hall
When Jim Kessinger was a child growing up in Kansas, he had a fireworks stand. He saved up $400 annually to invest in the fireworks and opened his small business a week before the Fourth of July. It wasn’t until the third that he’d break even, and by the end of the fourth he “wound up making pretty good money.”
Now, as the owner of Plumper Pumpkin Patch and Tree Farm, Kessinger has found his way back into the seasonal market. He opened the farm in 1998. “I liked the opportunity to work with people directly and I liked the seasonality of it,” he explained. “I knew I wanted to farm something. I thought of what I could do and a pumpkin patch came to mind.”
The Kessinger family has lived on the 65-acre farm outside of Portland since 1993. Kessinger originally worked at Intel, but left in 1997 to pursue a flexible work schedule that accommodated his growing family. The farm grows 25 types of pumpkins as well as gourds, squashes, other produce, five types of Christmas trees and sunflowers.
The farm was founded by the Kruger family around 1890. The first structure on the farm was a barn, the core of which still exists, making it over 130 years old. At one point, the farm encompassed 300 acres and included a dairy, a sheep flock and a walnut and plum orchard.
The farm has evolved a lot over the years. Kessinger said production of the pumpkin patch has grown and increased at a steep rate, as has the expansion of the number of seasonal employees and equipment. Kessinger said when he first started his farm he had one tractor; now he’s up to six, which has allowed them to increase the number of hay rides they offer too.
The addition of Christmas trees came in 2000, although the trees themselves took around seven years to grow. “It feels like digging holes and putting dollar bills in,” he joked, “but it’s a building thing.”
Kessinger has also extended his season by adding a sunflower festival in August. He said his daughter went to British Columbia for her honeymoon and encountered a sunflower festival on a farm, and she told him they had to do it. The festival is going on its third year in 2021.
Networking and building connections with farmers has been another way to help the Plumper Pumpkin Patch grow, Kessinger said. One of the organizations he’s a part of will host farm tours and he said that he’ll “shamelessly steal ideas” from other farms, as other farms will also take from him when he hosts. Kessinger added that he’s also an avid reader of magazines that feature pumpkin patches to help with ideas too.
The most important factor for Kessinger is creating an experience. “I’m trying to offer more than just pumpkins,” he explained, which is where agritourism comes into play. “It’s vital.” Farm activities include a play area, a field with slides and an obstacle course and an underground play structure dubbed “The Hobbit House.” The farm even has animals like sheep, goats and cows for visitors to see.
One example of agritourism that’s been productive for Kessinger is his pumpkin and apple cannons. He has a 100-tree apple orchard, but his worm problem was bad enough that he wanted to do something with the produce he couldn’t sell, and the idea of an apple cannon was formed.
“Agritourism allows me to make improvements to the farm, buy equipment and deliver a better product to the people,” he said.
Even though the COVID-19 pandemic was a challenge, Kessinger said that through creative endeavors they were able to recoup the money they usually make through school field trips by hosting a safari. Customers would pay $10 per car to drive through the farm and see animals in their pens and receive a box of homemade donuts. They had up to 600 cars in one day.
“People appreciated being able to go somewhere,” he said. “We had a little pushback on masks but it was overwhelmingly positive. People saw what we were doing and appreciated it.”
The biggest challenge the farm faces is the property’s lack of water. Kessinger had a well put in, but it still limited his irrigation options. After a few years of trial and error, he stopped irrigating to focus on increasing organic matter in the soil to conserve his water, and he found that worked for his needs.
Another obstacle he had to overcome is cash flow. As a seasonal business, Kessinger makes the majority of his money in a few months’ span each year. He said he has lines of credit through the bank and starts off each year “with a pot of money, and it’s all gone by September. So October is when I fill it back up again.” Staffing can also be a challenge when Kessinger grows from his five full-time workers to around 100 during harvest season.
This year, Kessinger will be using 25 acres he had rented out for hay production to plant more Christmas trees. He said he struggles with “growing them fast enough,” and hopes producing on more land will help with that.
Plumper Pumpkin Patch will also be shifting from using food trucks to making their own food for customers. Kessinger has already invested in a donut machine and corn roaster, while also selling homemade caramel apples, but this year they will also be serving hamburgers.
The most rewarding aspect for Kessinger has been working with customers and their kids. He said it’s a crucial learning experience for the children too, because so many of them have never seen a cow up close. He also enjoys working with his employees, who he said are “enthusiastic and positive” about what they’re doing.
Although making money is important to keep the farm running, Kessinger said Plumper Pumpkins is much more than that. “If you just focus on money you’re not going to have fun,” he said. “You have to focus on the big picture and the big picture is providing a service in terms of products and experience.”