Farmers diversify with pumpkin patches

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Fall has families clamoring to the nearest pumpkin patch for fun autumn activities. The corn mazes, rows of pumpkins, trees full of apples and hayrides don't just make good Facebook photos: Agritourism is big business for local farmers.

Commercial gardener Jan Sanderson, of Aurora, S.D., started Sanderson Gardens in 1977. On 40 acres, Sanderson grows a variety of seasonal crops throughout the year, starting with rhubarb and asparagus in late spring, moving to strawberries in early summer, raspberries in August and ending the season with pumpkins.

"I started this business long before anyone else in the area was making their living from gardening," says Sanderson. "Most gardeners market their produce through farmers markets, but I took a different approach, offering one or two crops at a time and inviting customers to come to the farm to pick up their own produce."

While at Sanderson's farm, customers have the full farm experience by walking through the fields to make their own selections from the rows of fruits and vegetables growing.

"Agritourism is a natural component of the farm," Sanderson says. "We have a large playground, and many young families come to spend the day hanging out and enjoying the farm. People love exploring the garden and getting their hands dirty. Payments are made through the honor system. We list our prices, and people put their money in an ammo box. It's worked well for us over the years."

Sanderson says his customers used to be elderly neighbors buying in bulk for canning purposes, but today the majority of his customers are young families wanting to take photos of their kids playing in the mud and picking pumpkins.

"Visitors to the garden get to experience a little bit of agriculture and discover where their food comes from," Sanderson says. "Most of our customers don't live on a farm, so it's a fun experience for them and something new for their kids to explore and do."

In addition to selling produce directly to consumers, Sanderson sells rhubarb roots nationwide to suppliers and also works with several of the state's vineyards to help produce rhubarb wines. His advice to others looking to diversify their own farm land? It doesn't take many acres to make a go of the commercial gardening business.

"Honestly, when I first got started in this business, so many people thought I was crazy," he says. "The learning curve was pretty steep, but you don't need 1,000 acres to be profitable like you might in a corn and soybean operation. There's a lot of hand labor, but each year, I've learned more and gotten better about pest and weed control. It keeps getting easier, and the business keeps growing. I think I've got it down to where I would really only need five acres to be profitable. It's hard work, but it's creative work. There are unlimited possibilities in this business."

While some gardeners grow a wide range of seasonal produce, Hanselman's Pumpkin Patch of Ethan, S.D., focuses entirely on pumpkins for fall decorating, jack o'lantern-making and Halloween fun.

"We have 40 acres of pumpkins on our farm, along with a shed where we sell fall-inspired holiday decor," says Amy Hanselman, who works for her family's farm. "We also offer squash and colored corn, but our primary focus is pumpkins of all sizes, ranging from one-quarter pound to 50 pounds."

Open from a week after Labor Day through Halloween, Hanselman's Pumpkin Patch invites visitors to shop for pumpkins and take photos with the various props and fall scenes they've set up throughout the farm.
"Visitors love visiting the farm and enjoying country life for a few hours with their families," Hanselman says. "Many enjoy coming year after year to take photos and watch their kids grow through seasonal fall snapshots."

The Hanselmans start out the year in May with planting. Summer is dedicated to weeding, tilling and maintaining the pumpkin patch. By late August, the family begins preparing the yard for visitors and setting up displays.
"We've been in business for 23 years, and it's always interesting to visit with neighboring farmers who raise corn and soybeans," Hanselman says. "They always ask how our pumpkin crop is doing, because they know if there's a drought like what we experienced this year, it impacts us just like it does them. We are trying to make a living off the land just like they do, so they take us seriously and realize our crop is important, even if it's not traditional."