Two area pumpkin patches -- one in its first year, another near its 25th -- offer more than future jack-o'-lanterns for entertainment-hungry customers.
There's a new pumpkin player in Douglas County.
Free-State Farm Pumpkin Patch opened last weekend just north of Lawrence, cutting into turf dominated for nearly a quarter-century by the 17-acre Schaake's Pumpkin Patch three miles east of downtown.
The folks at Free-State -- no relation to the high school, downtown brewery, glass company, veterinary hospital or other businesses in town -- simply want to add variety to what has become an autumnal tradition for many area families.
And that means more than picking pumpkins.
"We just feel like they need something else to do," said Adam Williams, who coordinates Free-State's 17-acre patch and associated concessions, horse-drawn wagons, bluegrass music, farm-animal petting area and pony carousel. "We've got a lot of stuff out here."
Such "value-added" farming is gaining popularity in agricultural circles as falling prices, temperamental weather and increased competition have pushed family farmers into finding new ways to market crops and make ends meet. Some, like Douglas County farmer Richard Strong, have turned cornfields into mazes for entertainment rather than food or feed.
But pumpkins -- those colorful gourds ripe for carving into jack-o'-lanterns during the Halloween season -- always have been somewhat different, said Bruce Chladny, Douglas County's horticulture extension agent for K-State Research and Extension. That's because many people consider pumpkins ornamental, not edible.
And it's the rural experience that sells, he said.
"Picking out the pumpkin is the secondary thing," Chladny said. "It's just like going out and cutting down a Christmas tree. The big thing is going out there and finding the one that's going to be your tree, versus going to Wal-Mart or Kmart or whatever shopping center and giving them 10 bucks and hauling this half-dead tree home.
"It's all in the experience."
Free-State, about 1.5 miles north of town on North 1900 Road, sits alongside the Victorian Veranda Country Inn, a new bed and breakfast on 57 acres. Rob and Beverly Phillips own both ventures.
"We're not trying to put anybody out of business by any means," said Williams, who is charging 25 cents a pound for pumpkins. "We just want to provide Lawrence people something else."
But don't expect the Schaakes -- Larry and Janet -- to back down after 24 years of selling pick-your-own pumpkins, plus the contents of a shed packed full of honey, cider, Indian corn, dried flowers, corn shocks and dozens of crafts. Twenty varieties of pumpkins sell for 17 cents a pound at Schaake's.
Larry Schaake said his business had increased 30 percent a year since 1993, when floods and hail cut into profits on the family farm off 15th Street. He figures this past summer's hot weather and shortage of rain could cut the family's crop in half this year, but the patch's traditional hay rides, straw maze and farm animals are expected to draw visitors just the same.
In a typical year, about 80 percent of the patch's sales come from pumpkins, with the rest attributed to crafts and concessions.
Weekdays through Oct. 31, the farm will welcome as many as 5,000 schoolchildren from Topeka to St. Joseph, Mo., plus thousands more children and their parents on weeknights and weekends. About half will come from Johnson County, leaving the suburban jungle for a rural oasis.
Larry Schaake has seen as many as a dozen patches come and go since his children started the family patch as a 4-H project in 1975, and Janet Schaake isn't worried about new competition from north of the Kansas River.
"I think that Lawrence is probably big enough for two," she said. "I'm sure it'll probably cut the sales a little bit, but that's business."
-- Mark Fagan's phone message number is 832-7188. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.