COVER STORY: Agritourism offers a slice of Americana at this pumpkin patch

EMERADO, N.D. -- You know it the minute you spot it from the road; Todd Nelson's farm is anything but typical. Pumpkins and straw bales are everywhere. An old truck with a skeleton driver is parked out front, and there is a skull staring at you f...

EMERADO, N.D. -- You know it the minute you spot it from the road; Todd Nelson's farm is anything but typical. Pumpkins and straw bales are everywhere. An old truck with a skeleton driver is parked out front, and there is a skull staring at you from inside a mail box.

This place is part farm, certainly, but part theme park as well. And Nelson puts a lot of work into making sure the children who come to visit Nelson's Pumpkin Patch near Emerado, N.D., have a great time.

"It's nice to see the kids come out, and the families, they enjoy it," he says. "We get great feedback. People say they're glad there's something like this in the community."

Nelson's Pumpkin Patch is a part of an expanding agritourism industry in North Dakota, attracting people from other states and even countries who want a taste of Americana.

According to Fred Walker, a marketing director with the North Dakota Tourism Division, agritourism also is a growing industry that can show people what farmers and ranchers do to make a living.


"It's a way of showcasing that we're all very proud or where we come from and what we do," he says. "I think that we have seen much more interest in showcasing that. We are getting more interest, I believe, on a daily basis in agritourism.


Nelson's Pumpkin Patch is a good example of one such business that is gaining in value to the family.

"It's probably become just as important as the rest of it," Nelson says.

He estimates that the yearly sales make up about one-fourth of the income they realize from farming.

The Pumpkin Patch is open every year for the Halloween season on the family. They have families, school classes and church groups come out to spend an hour or two playing games, finding their way through a corn maze and braving the Gruesome Granary Haunted House.

Each year, they send brochures to area schools and day care centers around the area. Church groups come out, and birthday parties even are arranged there.

They also work with the Grand Forks (N.D.) Chamber of Commerce, advertise in the Grand Forks Herald and have brochures available at the visitor's center.


Drawing power

The North Dakota Tourism Division may be able to help him bring more people to his Pumpkin Patch and from farther away. The organization offers matching grants to agritourism businesses for a number of purposes.

"We have a marketing grant, which is a $5,000 match grant for them to market themselves, whether to put together a brochure, get Web site development or signage -- those types of things," Walker says.

They offer event-related grants, also up to $5,000 in matching funds.

"A pumpkin patch-type of thing would probably be considered an event," he says.

Also, they offer an Infrastructure and Expansion grant which, matched at $2 for every dollar the farmer invests up to $24,000, covers a longer term than the others.

"We do the marketing grant every year, but the Infrastructure and Expansion grant has 18 months, where they have a chance to build, whether it's bricks and mortar or expanding something or building something completely new."

North Dakota Tourism Division also can provide expertise in an industry that is new to most farmers and ranchers.


"The biggest thing that I believe we bring to the table is that we assist our partners," Walker says. "We assist them in marketing their product."

Added income

In the tourism game, the product often is a destination, and some might be surprised how interesting a pumpkin patch can be to non-Americans.

"This year, in Bismarck, with Papa's Pumpkin Patch, I had three different media groups there" from Germany, Australia and the United Kingdom, he says.

These are the travel media representatives who go back home and get people interested in U.S. tours.

"They like to see that type of Americana when they're traveling through," Walker says.

The earning potential of an agritourism business may surprise some. For example, he says a Wyoming rancher who ran 2,000 head of cattle was looking to ease off on the heavier workload demands of his ranch. He started running just 200 head of cattle and opened up his ranch to tourism, inviting people to come out and be a ranch hand for a few days or a week at a time.

"He made more money running those 200 cattle and those people once a week across his ranch than he did running 2,000 head of cattle," Walker says.


A new destination

Nelson's Pumpkin Patch got its start in 1996, when Carrie, Nelson's wife, decided she wanted to plant some pumpkins. She taught second grade at Carl Ben Eielson Elementary School at nearby Grand Forks Air Force Base.

"She planted four pumpkin plants, just to have her second grade kids come out and see, and it kind of grew from there," Nelson says.

For the first few years, Carrie took care of the pumpkins and the students' visits. Then one year, she got a little inspiration.

"My wife, years back, was out in Bismarck. There's a big pumpkin patch out there, and that's kind of when we first started."

Nelson still was farming with his grandfather and so did not have a lot of spare time, "or didn't think about taking the time," he says. "I didn't know if it was a kind of a hair-brained idea or not."

The Nelson family had farmed there since the late 1800s. This year, Nelson and his sons, Aaron, 18, and Corey, 15, grew wheat, soybeans and pinto beans. The farm and Carrie's teaching salary are the family's main sources of income.

Finding time


Except for the fact that the Nelsons usually are harvesting around the same time they are setting up the Pumpkin Patch, it appears that they have it all under control.

"Being that there's only about 500 acres, I can manage it," Nelson says. "I still have soybeans left, but I usually have someone take my soybeans off for me just because of the timing of this. It just gets to be too much."

His pinto bean harvest was a little tougher this year because the cool weather had pushed the harvest back into his Pumpkin Patch time.

"But we got it done," he says.

The economics of the Pumpkin Patch are, at first glance, on the positive side. They charge $1 per person on weekdays and $2 on weekends.

"The school kids usually have $3 a child," he says. "They get the hayride, a small pumpkin and then the other activities."

It is not unusual to see 150 school kids come though in a single day.

"We definitely make money on the Pumpkin Patch itself," he says. "But I guess we don't figure our hours and labor into it. It's gotten very labor-intensive, so just to do it for fun wouldn't be any fun."


It is a family operation, though, and their kids, including 23-year-old Tarah, all take turns helping out.

"She's actually graduated college now and living at home again, so she is helping, too. She comes out at nights and we all work weekends," Nelson says. "My mother- and father-in-law help on weekends, too."

Some of the money goes into their pockets, and some of it goes back into the Pumpkin Patch for next year.

A-mazing corn

One of the featured attractions of this agritourist's stop is the two-acre corn maze. Nelson makes sure the pattern is different every year, so the regulars are always challenged.

"There is no set theme to it," he says. "I just go in and kind of make dead-ends."

There's always one entrance and one exit. He says he doesn't draw out the maze pattern ahead of time.

"I tried that once and it just got to be too confusing," he says. "I just go in there, and I can see where I've been, so I'll just stop and kind of look around."

He cuts out the maze paths while the corn still is very young, about a foot or so tall. This way, it's easier to cut and get good look around him.

"And then I'll wait about a week or 10 days because the corn will grow back, and I'll cut it again," he says. "Just before we open, I'll go in there, and there's always some weeds or grass. So I'll clean it up and make sure there's a path through there."

This year's corn is not quite as tall as it usually is, but that shouldn't be a problem for children.

The Pumpkin Patch closes the day after Halloween night, leaving those two acres of good corn standing.

"We harvest it now," Nelson says. "We never used to, when corn was maybe $1.60 a bushel. By the time the kids ran through it, I figured it wasn't worth it."

But one year, a visiting farmer mentioned that corn prices had come up and that it might be worth harvesting.

"I hadn't paid any attention to it because we don't raise it," he says.

So he got hold of a sunflower header and combined it up. He sold the corn for $500.

"So now I try and harvest it every year," he says.

Just because the season is over at Halloween doesn't mean Nelson is through. He's always got projects that keep him busy.

"Even in the wintertime, I'm doing something in the shop, building games or something for the kids," he says. "I try to add something every year."

As for inspiration, much of it comes from Nelson's own ideas.

"We'll see some things, like painting the round bales, we saw that somewhere else and incorporated it here," he says. "But a lot of the ideas, the games and stuff like pumpkin bowling, I came up with."

Granary rehab

The biggest project, and also the newest, is the Gruesome Granary Haunted House. Nelson began it this summer. He started out by hauling in three old wooden granaries and an old bunkhouse. He cleared out some wooded land and set them there, end-to-end. He connected them with doors leading from each one to the next, and the last door opens to the outside. He added a porch and decorated it with several scary scenes, all complete with spooky sounds.

"This is all new. It got to be an overwhelming project," Nelson says. "We wanted a fence around it, so little kids aren't wandering in."

He also had to wire it for the freight gags, all of which represent expense. But he's pretty sure it will be well worth it once the kids start going through.

"That was kind of my idea to get some input from the older kids on what to do," he says. "I kind of liked that end of it. We have some animated props and then every Saturday night, we have actual people in there, dressed up in costumes."

It is pretty gruesome, too, so Nelson is recommending it for kids who are at least 12 years old. The cost is $8 per person.

Something for everyone

For the younger children, he's built plenty of fun attractions, including the corn maze and two straw bale mazes, which are low enough that the kids can see where to go. Nelson say the pre-school kids usually run into a couple dead-ends before they get it figured out and make it to the little Haunted Hen House, where they can each pick out a small pumpkin to take home.

There is a pumpkin hoop toss, bean bag toss, pumpkin bowling, pumpkin rolling, a gunny sack race and a pumpkin tic-tac-toe. This is Americana at its best.

Also available for Halloween visitors is Haunted Hollow road, a trail cut through dense forest for creepy walks on darks nights.

The Nelsons convert their barn during their Halloween season to the Pumpkin Shack, where families can pick out their own pumpkins. To help visitors get their own homes decked out for Halloween, Nelson also sells ornamental corn and gourds, straw bales and bunches of cried corn stalks. Wagons are provided to haul the goods to the car.

Also, he added a concession stand two years ago, providing coffee, hot chocolate, cappuccino and light snacks on weekdays, and hot dogs, tacos, Frito pies, nachos and other foods on the weekends.

The cook car

For more adult fare, there is the cook car, which remains from the original family homestead by Kelly Slough, about two miles east of Nelson's farm. He says it probably was built in the late 1800s.

"It had been fixed up a little bit once when we had a reunion a little while ago, but the windows were getting broke and it was sunk down in the mud up to the axles," he says.

He finally decided he had to get it back to his place or it was going to end up falling apart. He hauled it in, pressure-washed the inside and the outside and painted it. Nelson says it was well-built, and now looks as good as new. Maybe better, with some interior decoration to make it feel homey.

"We'll have ladies' luncheons out here," he says. "We've already had a couple, this year. We put a little heat in there, and they'll come out have a sandwich and some chips, and some coffee."

Every year, the family musters and works together to provide the kids visiting Nelsons' Pumpkin Patch a memorable, fun Halloween time. For visitors from other counties, it could be a very real slice of Americana.

"We all try and work together because it takes all of us," he says. "But it's definitely been a good deal."

What To Read Next
Get Local