In addition to their own farming operation, the Eggers are involved with Africa New Life, which helps teach agricultural practices in remote villages in Africa. Photo courtesy of the Pumpkin Patch

by Aliya Hall

The Pumpkin Patch on Sauvie Island in Portland, OR, has been going strong for over 50 years and is now on its third generation, sparking new changes at the farm.

“One big change is our kids are grown up and working with us,” said Kari Egger, who owns the Pumpkin Patch with her husband, Bob.

The Pumpkin Patch is best known for its harvest activities and pumpkins, but the farm also prides itself in diversification. They grow and sell over 50 fruits and vegetables as well as beef. The farm is equal parts wholesale and retail, distributing to grocery stores and restaurants in the area.

The Pumpkin Patch offers a market full of fresh produce from their farm, the Pumpkin Cottage Giftshop, a patio café and coffee cart, the original animal barn from 1929 and a corn maze. “We’re really a small village,” Egger said.

Egger runs the retail side with her daughter; her son has been working with her husband in the overall farming. With their help, Egger said the farm has added new and exciting features. The coffee booth was added in conjunction to the café, which has also expanded its offerings, adding draft beer and ciders. The gift shop has also been updated aesthetically both inside and out.

Egger said there have also been some offerings that they’ve eliminated or reworked. The farm closed down their CSA program and restructured how they allow school field trips. Egger said with schools struggling to receive funding, they now simply invite schools to visit the farm. In the future, the Eggers wants to further integrate their children into the business while they take a step back.

“We keep striving for perfection,” she said. “We want to keep growing, keep challenging ourselves and add new things and take away some things. Our goal is to always work smarter and not harder.”

The Pumpkin Patch went through changes with the COVID-19 pandemic. Egger said last season was their busiest year ever because they were considered an outdoor market and customers felt more secure in their location. Despite only being a 15-minute drive from downtown Portland, Sauvie Island gives guests the idea of “being in the country,” Egger said, and coming to the farm gave people something to do. Beyond more visitors, Egger also noticed that in years where the economy is good, they sell less, and when the economy is poor, they tend to sell more because they offer so many bulk items for food preservation.

“It was fun with all the people, but I wouldn’t want to do it again with masks and people on edge,” she said. “Some were afraid to be out and others were like ‘Thank you, Lord.’”

She added that it was challenging being a business last year due to the tighter COVID-19 restrictions in place and working with government entities. Challenges, however, are nothing new to the farm. Egger said that every year when they start the season, “It’s like ‘What’s going to be the big one this year?’ It’s always like, okay, right now I don’t know what to do, but I’ll sleep on it and give it time and we’ll figure it out,” she said.

With agritourism being the backbone for many pumpkin patch operations, Egger said it’s a balance for them. With their zoning, there is only so much they’re allowed to do without getting permits. While many of their agritourism activities haven’t had new additions, Egger said they’re trying to continuously improve what they’re doing. “We’re growing but we’re trying to do it better with more quality,” she said.

In October, the farm adds hayrides, which Egger said was a practical choice because of the number of acres and the weight of the pumpkins. “We wouldn’t be able to sell or harvest all those [pumpkins] without the agritourism part because of the difficulties of labor to bring it in,” she said.

Another crucial part of the Pumpkin Patch’s operation is diversification. Egger said “diversification is everything,” especially with the retail and wholesale sides, because they balance each other out. Diversification also makes a difference in case of crop failure or if one crop performs betters than another. Pumpkins don’t fall into that category though, she added. If they had a bad pumpkin year, the impact would be more severe.

When the Pumpkin Patch isn’t farming on their property, the Eggers are involved with Africa New Life, which brings sustainable farming to a global stage. Bob Egger has been to South Sudan and the whole family has been to Ethiopia, Rwanda and Uganda to help teach agricultural practices in remote villages.

Egger said their partnership with Africa New Life started when their children got interested in visiting Africa after participating in Operation Christmas Child. After 18 months of thinking and praying about if they wanted to take this trip, Egger said her son’s teacher asked their class what they wanted to be when they grew up. When Egger’s son said he wanted to be a farmer, it piqued the teacher’s attention. The teacher’s husband was a director of Africa New Life and was looking for a farmer to go with them to Africa.

“It was an incredible challenge and experience,” Egger said. “We’ve been back four times to Rwanda and farming has taken off.”

In all of their work, Egger said it’s the people that make it the most rewarding. “I just love our faithful staff, and we have a small turnover rate, so it’s always a joy,” she said. “October is fun. It’s fun and it’s crazy.”