Articles

    Pumpkin patch gives farm a new life

    A mother’s desire to ensure that each of her three sons had pumpkins to carve for Halloween, spawned a pumpkin farm operation that gave new life to a family farm and is still going strong after 30 years.

    “In 1977, when our three sons were young, my wife decided to plant pumpkins in the garden so they would have Halloween pumpkins,” related Chicago Farmers’ October meeting speaker Bruce Condill, of The Great Pumpkin Patch in Arthur, Illinois.  “The patch did well and increased in size over the years. So much so that the boys set up a farm stand and sold the pumpkins. The proceeds paid for seeds for the next crop. We also invited our boys’ classes from school to visit our working farm, see the pumpkin patch, select a pumpkin to take home, and interact with our animals.”

    In 1988 when a severe drought threatened the Condill family’s corn, soybean, and alfalfa crops, those pumpkins sparked an idea to sustain the family farm, which had been in the McDonald family (Bruce’s wife’s family) for five generations. Mrs. Condill’s family migrated from Virginia to Arthur, Illinois, in 1859. “We were struggling in 1988 with the cash crops,” said Bruce.

    “My wife suggested that we expand the pumpkin patch with a variety of displays and mazes and open our farm to the general public,” said Bruce.  “It was a great idea. I don’t think we would have made it without The Great Pumpkin Patch.”

    Today, The Great Pumpkin Patch, which sits in the middle of Amish country, welcomes more than 60,000 people during the harvest season, which runs from September 10 through October 31.The farm is open daily from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. It grows 300 varieties of pumpkins, squash, and gourds on 63 of the farm’s 200 acres.

    “We have three missions: the Homestead Bakery, the Great Pumpkin Patch, and Homestead Seeds,” said Bruce. “Amish bakers produce the baked goods for the bakery. Our son, Mac, is in charge of Homestead Seeds.   Our goal is to encourage the ordinary farmer to grow more gourds, pumpkins, and squash. Mac and his wife, Ginny, also own and manage The Homestead Bakery and The Great Pumpkin Patch.”

    He went on to say that the farm provides a safe place for people to experience the harvest season and get connected to the land and each other.  “We want them to know where the food they eat begins,” said Bruce.

    Squash, gourds, and pumpkins have a range of maturities from 70 to140 days.  Plantings are intended to be done on May 20, June 10, and June 20.  “This year was wet, which altered the intended planting dates, and was not good for pumpkins, but great for soybeans and corn, which we still raise,” said Bruce. “When the growing season is ended, we disk the remaining pumpkins into the soil and then soybeans are planted the following spring. When the soybeans follow the pumpkin crop, they are three to 12 bushels better per acre than when they follow corn. The pumpkins are a great fertilizer.”

    He noted that Mac is an expert on pumpkins and gourds.  He works with seed companies and sometimes grows experimental seeds.  Mac also works with botanical groups from around the world and with university specialty crop people.  Bruce noted that Mac appeared on the Martha Stewart Show three times to discuss gourds and the many varieties that are available. The Great Pumpkin Patch also was featured in an issue of Martha Stewart’s magazine.

    “The Great Pumpkin Patch has many unique ways of displaying all of the varieties that Mac has introduced to the farm,” said Bruce.  “The Patch boasts a Survivor squash, which came from a Kentucky farmer whose seeds came from a Holocaust survivor, thus its name.  The Patch has African, Asian, European, Australian, New Zealand, and Central and South American gourds, pumpkins, and squash.”

    The heirloom seeds used in the 63 acre pumpkin patch are purchased from commercial and private seed companies and also include seeds raised by Mac in his isolation plots.  These plots are planted at least one-half mile from any source of a cucurbit vine plant.  Bruce said that neighboring farmers allow them to use plots on their land so that seed purity is assured. Seeds are not taken from the large pumpkin patch because of the risk of cross-pollination.

    While the Great Pumpkin Patch is a highlight of the farm, there also are mazes, animals, and a restored one-room 1912 schoolhouse. The school and other attractions bring 4,000 school children on field trips to the farm in October.  In June, the farm sponsors the “Back Forty,” which is a Hob Nob arts and crafts event that features 75 vendors, crafters, and musicians. In the past, the Condills were hosts of “Farm to Fork” dinners that were attended by 100 diners at $80 a plate.

    “It was a five course dinner that included meat from our Amish neighbors’ farms, vegetables that were locally sourced, and wine from a winery,” said Bruce. “It was a wonderful way for people to learn about the source of food. It connected the farmer to the chef and to the people who ate the food.”

    The Great Pumpkin Patch also has been responsible for decorating Country Living fairs throughout the United States with its many gourds and squashes and flowers. The farm also decorated the White House grounds one year for a Halloween party. “It was a great experience,” said Bruce.