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    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.

    How tariffs are affecting agriculture

    Dr. Gary Schnitkey, the speaker at the Chicago Farmers’ September 10th meeting, opened his presentation with positive news for a large audience: 2018 will be a good year; yields will be high and incomes will be higher, too. Dr. Schnitkey, professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s College of Agricultural and Consumer Economics, has opened a number of the Chicago Farmers’ new seasons with presentations on trends in agriculture. These meetings always draw a large attendance and this September meeting was no exception.

    While Dr. Schnitkey led off with good news about 2018, he said that 2019 probably would not fare as well due to the tariff proposals. “Next year is a year of concern because people are uncertain about what the trade dispute will do to prices,” said Dr. Schnitkey. “If you are a landowner, you will have to have tougher discussions with your renters.”

    Dr. Schnitkey said that in 2018, corn fetched $4.00 a bushel and soybeans fetched $9.50 a bushel, “Prices fell after May due to the trade discussions so don’t budget these prices for 2019,” he said. “We are predicting corn could be at $3.50 per bushel and soybeans could be $9 per bushel. The trade dispute has dashed people’s hopes for higher prices. Until there is more clarity or a resolution to the trade dispute, these are the prices that we project to be in place.”

    Soybeans have been at the $9.75 level since 2014, but trade discussions began in May and prices dipped. Dr. Schnitkey related that on Friday, September 7, the bushel price for soybeans in Decatur was $7.94. “We can expect a range between $7.94 and $8.20 for soybeans and just below $4 for corn throughout the harvest period. I suggest you build your expectations at these prices for next year.”

    Dr. Schnitkey pointed out that there would have been price declines even without the trade issue due to high yields, but the trade talks have taken another $0.80 to $0.90 off the price of soybeans.

    Additionally, corn prices are expected to fall going into 2019. Corn will look more profitable than soybeans and, as a result, farmers are switching from soybean crops to corn crops, which will depress corn prices. Dr. Schnitkey noted that western states are switching to wheat from soybeans. “The downward trend of soybeans will affect other crops. The trade dispute will have a long-term impact on prices just by being there,” he said.

    In discussing yields, Dr. Schnitkey said that since 2014 soybeans and corn have produced above average amounts in Illinois. “A plateau was created, but that does not mean that those yields will always be there.”

    Regarding cash rents, Dr. Schnitkey said that reports prior to the trade discussions indicated that 2018 cash rents experienced about a $5 increase. “Where it goes in 2019 is a big question,” he said. “Land values are holding relatively well and major declines are not projected. They are not making any more farmland and that is a motive to hold assets; however, we could see declines if the trade dispute continues. Landowners might want to consider using flexible or variable cash rents going forward.”

    In response to an audience member’s question about lenders’ attitudes during this period, Dr. Schnitkey said that lenders have watched working capital decline on farms and it is possible they will become more proactive. He said lenders want to see a positive cash flow. “If a farmer has carry-over debt, the lender expects that farmer to sell assets to wipe out the debt.”