by Gail March Yerke
The 2020 pandemic brought challenges and opportunities to many agribusinesses that depend on the fall season for the majority of their annual revenue – pumpkin farms included. Plans of operation were adjusted to follow social distancing guidelines and provide for the safety of staff and guests. Online reservation systems that helped limit crowds, cancellation of school group tours and closing one day of the week for deep cleaning were just a few of the changes seen across the country.
Waldvogel’s Pumpkin Farm did all of the above. Touted as Wisconsin’s largest pumpkin farm, the establishment has been open since 1980. Located in Juneau, about 60 miles northwest of Milwaukee, the popular destination draws visitors from far and wide. Over 70 attractions cover most of the 80-acre site that also offers seasonal produce, natural autumn decorations and freshly baked goods from their on-farm bakery.
Phil and Debbie Waldvogel moved to their 200-acre central Wisconsin farm in 1977. At first they raised soybeans and corn, later adding a U-pick operation with 15 different vegetable crops. They currently grow sweet corn and produce for their farm market stands along with 20 acres of pumpkins. Their son Mike, a marketing and business education high school teacher, recently left that position to join the family business full-time. During pumpkin season they are also helped by their daughter Julie, son-in-law Luke and other family members.
Mike said his earliest memory of helping on the farm was learning how to run the cash register at age nine. He continued to work on the farm through his high school and college years. With his parents looking toward retirement these days, he is helping manage many of the day-to-day operations of the agribusiness.
Additional part time staff are hired for autumn. “We hire anywhere from 20 to 30 part-time workers and a few more during the peak weekends,” said Mike. “Last year we added food trucks and did not need as many people when our café did not open.” He commented that one of the difficulties with seasonal hiring is that people like to keep their weekends open. “Trying to get people to commit to four or five weekends is a challenge,” he said. Additional parking attendant employees are also brought in for their 13-acre parking lot during the peak of the season.
Fees & Attractions
Unlike places that offer an a la carte menu of activities and charge accordingly, Waldvogel’s daily admission fee covers most of the attractions on their farm. Children two and younger are always free and the discounted online daily entrance fee this year is $10.90. They also offer a $6 “Bounce-Back” pass when purchasing online tickets for those considering a return visit. Even with a typical family visit of two to four hours, it’s hard to see everything at Waldvogel’s in one trip. “The feedback we get is that the kids are tired before they run out of things to do,” said Mike. “Parents like it because they have sleepy kids on the ride home.”
Some activities included in the entry fee include train rides, nine-hole mini golf, a petting zoo, a pirate ship and the world’s largest pumpkin bounce pad that accommodates both kids and adults. Various live entertainment shows are featured on weekends. The farm offers both a corn maze and a corn walk. They learned from their guests that some don’t like getting lost in a larger maze, so there is a smaller corn walk option favored by families with small children. The corn walk can be completed in under 10 minutes. The pattern of the larger corn maze is created by a design company and the Waldvogels cut the field themselves in June using a computer and zero-turn lawnmower.
Star of the Show: Pumpkins
Waldvogel’s grow more than 40 varieties of pumpkins of every shape and color. Mike pointed out that Polar Bear is by far the most sought-after, a white variety that can weigh 40 to 50 pounds. The traditional dark-orange pumpkin follows as second most popular from their fields. When guests take the free wagon ride to either of the two pumpkin fields, any pumpkin of their choice is $5. “We don’t sell them by the pound anymore and any pumpkin in the field is the same price,” he said. Besides pumpkins, the farm offers natural autumn decorations that include hay bales, corn stalks, multi-colored ornamental corn and decorative gourds. Pre-priced pumpkins are also available for purchase, ranging from small pie pumpkins to larger jack-o’-lantern sizes.
Setting the Stage
They start planning and building additional attractions for the following year immediately after pumpkin season. One of the largest renovation projects at the farm for 2020 was the Haunted Granary. “After all the work on the Haunted Granary, we weren’t able to open it because of the pandemic. That was disappointing, but it will be new for our guests this year,” Mike said. With an operation of this scale, setting up for the fall season begins in June. “We try to add anywhere from four to eight new things each year. One of the biggest things we are adding this year is our 150-foot mega-slide.”
For the first time last year, the farm was closed on Mondays to facilitate maintenance and a deep cleaning schedule. It worked well having the one day of down time and they have decided to continue that practice this year. Another change they’re still considering for this year is the discontinuation of group tours. As weekday attendance has increased over the past few years, they have found it to be a challenge to provide adequate staffing for both tour groups and walk-in traffic.
With Mike’s background in business and marketing education, he has taken on the advertising and promotion side of the business too. He recently launched their new website that features video as well as images of the farm. Online ticketing is promoted through the new website to help forecast high volume days and help adjust staffing accordingly. The site also lists all of the attractions that are free with admission as well as the less than half dozen that have additional fees. Social media advertising concentrates on Facebook and Instagram with additional promotion through Google. An email list has been developed for their pre-season sale announcement and newsletter that is sent to showcase what’s new at the farm each year.
When asked about his favorite part of the pumpkin farm, Mike said it was the excitement you hear from families in the admission area. “There’s all this energy and parents say that for months their kids have been looking forward to coming to the farm. When leaving, they say that it’s the most fun they’ve had in a long time and they can’t wait to come back. It makes you feel really good for all of the months of work you have put in.”