Lessons from the Pumpkin Patch

CHICAGO (MainStreet) -- A visit to the local pumpkin patch has become an October ritual for many families. Yes, you could pick up your jack-o-lantern-to-be at a big-box store, but there's nothing like a fall farm outing to connect you with nature. And where else can you take those "kids surrounded by pumpkins" pictures to send to Grandma?

Pumpkin patches are a modern outgrowth of a quintessentially American small business, the family farm. Farmers who can no longer support themselves solely through agriculture have stayed solvent by expanding beyond pumpkins into mini-entertainment venues. Building corn mazes and petting zoos may not technically be farming, but the revenue they bring in allows land to stay in the family.
What can a simple pumpkin patch teach you about running a business? Plenty, it turns out, including that a pumpkin patch can be about much more than pumpkins.

The Bartels Farm in Fort Collins, Colo., and the Hodges Family Farm outside Charlotte, N.C., are just two examples of properties that have been in the same family for more than 100 years. The secret to keeping such farms going is to combine old and new: Continue traditions such as a pumpkin patch, but think creatively about potential new revenue streams.

Carrie Peltzer and her husband Charlie are the fourth generation of Peltzers to run a farm in Southern California. The family started out in 1913, with an orchard of citrus trees in Anaheim. The land was eventually sold to Walt Disney ( DIS) to form part of Disneyland, and family members expanded into Christmas tree farms. Charlie and Carrie Peltzer started a pumpkin patch in Orange County 15 years ago and have since relocated to a 25-acre property near Temecula, near San Diego, known today as Peltzer Farms.

September and October are their busiest time of year. Pumpkin sales are just one element of the farm's fall business; visitors can also visit the petting zoo, take a pony ride, pan for gems at the Peltzer Farms Mine and wander the one-acre corn maze. Visitors who want to sample vintages from local wineries can stay at the on-site "Guest Retreat," and plans for a winery are in the works.

"We've got to pay the water bill, so we're always coming up with something," laughs Carrie Peltzer. "We have this great property, so we're trying to find ways to get people out here more often than just the fall." In addition to her farm duties, she works as an interior designer to help cover family expenses.

Renting space for special events will hopefully become a growing part of their business. Peltzer says a recent dinner for 100 people in the farm's garden was a successful way to show local winery owners and community members that the farm was more than just a place to buy pumpkins. The Peltzers, parents of a 6-year-old and 11-year-old, also plan to offer day camps during school vacations so children can try hands-on farm activities. "We need to teach our kids where our food comes from," Peltzer says. "We want them to have an outdoor experience they couldn't get anywhere else."

What can other small businesses learn from pumpkin patch operators?

1. Provide an experience, not just a product.
Families may come to a farm to buy a pumpkin, but they'll stay longer and spend far more if there are other activities that allow them to make a day of it. Pony rides, hay mazes and apple cider sales are natural add-ons that complement the farm environment; a video game arcade is not.

2. Vary your offerings to expand your appeal.
A farm that draws families during the day can be adapted for corporate events or weddings in the evenings. An open house or cocktail party can introduce the property to potential clients, as well as community members who can generate local word of mouth.

3. Nostalgia sells.
Urban and suburban parents want their children to understand and appreciate their country's agricultural past, and they're willing to pay for activities that are both educational and fun. Some family farms have even expanded into rustic B&Bs, where vacationing kids and their parents help out with chores and bond with the animals.

Families such as the Peltzers believe their farms serve a public service, by allowing visitors to maintain a connection to the land. But it takes creative thinking and tough physical labor to keep a family farm going. Luckily, the Peltzers can handle it: "I say I want it to look like this," Carrie says, "and my husband builds it."

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