Pick-your-own pumpkin patches have likely been around as long as pumpkins have been part of fall celebrations. But recently in Nebraska they’ve grown in number, size, scope and attendance.
Vala’s Pumpkin Patch near Gretna is one of those places where you can pick your own pumpkin. But there is more: animals to feed, 23 places to get food, seven places to shop, live entertainment, rides and enough other activities to fill a guide map that resembles what you’d get at an amusement park like Worlds of Fun in Kansas City. It’s grown a lot since Tim and Jan Vala started the business 29 years ago; and crowds have grown as well.
“We’ve become more and more popular,” Tim Vala says. “A lot of the people come back and we have a lot of season pass holders, so we’re pretty fortunate we have a pretty loyal following.”
Vala's parking lot on a Wednesday afternoon (Mike Tobias/NET News photo)
Attendance at select non-state park Nebraska attractions, 2012
Henry Doorly Zoo (Omaha) - 1,719,925
Omaha Children's Museum - 253,250
Vala's Pumpkin Patch (Gretna) - 200,000
Lincoln Children's Zoo - 191,093
The Durham Museum (Omaha) - 187,844
Joslyn Art Museum (Omaha) - 142,612
Stuhr Museum (Grand Island) - 64,247
Roca Berry Farm (Roca) - 50,000
Sheldon Museum of Art (Lincoln) - 46,714
Beatrice Big Blue Water Park - 26,473
Bellevue Berry Farm (Papillion) - 20,000
Museum of Nebraska Art (Kearney) - 19,965
Poppy's Pumpkin Patch (Norfolk) - 10,000
Country Harvest Pumpkin Patch (Glenvil) - 8,100
Pumpkin Ridge (Nebraska City) - 6,500
(Statistics reported by attractions and/or NE Tourism Commission)
That’s often evident by long lines of slow moving weekend traffic on the two lane road to Vala’s. Last year the pumpkin patch drew 200,000 people, according to Tim Vala. That makes it one of the top three non-state park attractions in Nebraska, trailing only Henry Doorly Zoo and the Omaha Children’s Museum – and Vala’s is only open for 42 days in September and October. Tim Vala says it’s fair to call this a multi-million dollar business, and he believes it’s one of the largest attractions of this type in the country. But it’s not just Vala’s.
“The pumpkin patch phenomenon has really exploded in the last ten years,” says Kathy McKillup, director of the Nebraska Tourism Commission.
Nebraska Tourism Commission statistics show that last year Roca Berry Farm south of Lincoln drew 50,000 people; Bellevue Berry Farm and Pumpkin Ranch in Papillion drew 20,000; and Poppy’s Pumpkin Patch near Norfolk drew 10,000. All told, there are probably 40 pumpkin patch attractions in two dozen counties across the state.
McKillup says pumpkin patch attractions are becoming lucrative examples of what she calls agri-ecotourism.
“We’re seeing a lot more pop up,” McKillup says. “We have some more smaller ones popping up as they’re starting to get into the market or supplement other industries like product for them to go and sell at their stands. We used to have a lot of you picks several decades ago and then they didn’t quite move along with the industry or move along with the interest, if you will. So they had to come back and re-invent themselves. By doing so, there has to be a little bit of engagement in different activities for all kinds to go experience.”
Charlie Touchette, executive director of the North American Farmers’ Direct Marketing Association, says the pumpkin patch attraction industry is growing throughout North America.
“Really what we’re seeing is the growth of small businesses,” Touchette says. “They started out as pumpkin patches, but they’re tending to go where their customers seem to be taking them. It’s kind of crazy. What may have started out as a little tiny pumpkin patch or a little tiny apple orchard is now a pretty good employer, at least within a season.”
Vala’s, for instance, employs more than 600 people this time of year, many part-time, along with a handful of full-time, year-round employees. That’s in addition to family, including Tim and Jan’s three adult daughters, all whom have grown up helping run the family business.
The pumpkin patch industry has likely received a boost from surging interest in Halloween.
"Halloween is now second to only Christmas in regards to retail sales and it has a lot of different elements to it that contribute to that, from costumes to candy to decorations," according to Amber Arnett-Bequeaith of America Haunts, an association representing select haunted houses throughout the United States. "We estimate that there are more than 1200 haunted attractions that actually charge fees to their events. There are probably more than 300 amusement facilities producing some sort of a Halloween or haunted house that helps them extend their season from the summer months into fall. There are probably thousands of charity attractions out there for people. Halloween is just a really fun holiday and it allows people to kind of step outside the box and be something that they normally wouldn’t get to."
The pumpkin patch industry has likely received a boost from increased interest in Halloween; the holiday is now second only to Christmas in retail sales. But Tim Vala, who says his attraction is more fall festival than Halloween attraction, believes family and Nebraska’s agricultural heritage are other reasons interest in starting and going to pumpkin patches is growing.
“My wife and I, we both grew up and had grandpa’s farm to go to,” Vala says. “We’d spend some time out in the summer out at grandpa’s farm. The generation coming up doesn’t have that opportunity. They don’t have a grandpa’s farm because we’re getting more and more disconnected from agriculture. So I think just being out at an old farmstead and seeing the old barns and seeing that agriculture part of it is kind of a real attraction too.”
“I think there’s a certain culture, a certain tradition, a certain heritage in the United States where folks do want to get out and hang out on a farm any given weekend,” Touchette adds.
It’s not an easy way to make a living. Vala says this time of year he’s working pretty much every waking hour. There’s also a lot of risk when all your income comes in a short period of time, and you’re an outdoor attraction.
“The risk part is the weather, because it’s an outside activity,” Vala says. “It’s just not a lot of fun to be out here if it’s 45 degrees, raining and winds blowing 30 miles an hour. We’ve had good years and bad years. It all kind of evens out.”
“It’s just one of those things where you have to expect to have a couple bad weekends and you’ve got to plan for it,” adds Josh Kadavy, owner of JK’s Pumpkin Patch. “We plan for that by making sure that we’re prepared for the next weekend.”
Kadavy runs one of Nebraska newer pumpkin patch attractions, but he’s no stranger to the business. He helped manage another patch for several years. Three years ago he decided to chase a dream, and started JK’s on his farm north of Lincoln. It’s smaller than Vala’s, more typical of most Nebraska attractions, and geared toward young kids and families. Kadavy lost money the first two years. Like other operations drought hurt his crop last year, so he had to bring in pumpkins for the attraction. But this year he’s making a profit, and attendance for the three days a week JK’s operates is on track to top 10 thousand.
“It’s one of those operations, quite frankly, that you just feel so good about doing what you do because not only is it just a business where you’re selling somebody something, you’re giving them an experience,” Kadavy says. “You’re giving them something that they can enjoy.”
“You’re seeing more growth in ag tourism right now, more than anything,” Kadavy adds. “I mean the pumpkin patch industry, the competition is growing significantly.”
CLICK HERE for information on and links to pumpkin patches in Nebraska.