Falling leaves, Indian corn, scarecrows, hay bales, wagon rides, mums and gourds galore can only mean two things – autumn has arrived, and it’s pumpkin pickin’ time.
Scott and Rachell Penton of Verbena are pulling out all the stops for the first Penton Farms Pumpkin Patch, an agritourism offshoot of the family’s Chilton County fruit and vegetable farm.
“There aren’t a lot of pumpkin patches in this part of the state,” said Rachell, whose family committed to the agritourism idea last October. “I love fall, and I’ve always liked the idea of having a pumpkin patch.”
Penton Farms Pumpkin Patch is a family affair, with the Penton children, Austin, 19, and Courtney, 16, and other family members chipping in their time to paint signs, build wagons, plant nine acres of pumpkins, cut the 2.2 miles of corn maze trails, post updates to social media and more.
“We couldn’t have gotten the farm ready for the public without our family,” said Scott, an Alabama Fruit & Vegetable Growers Association board member.
That’s all in addition to raising 150 head of cattle, manning weekly fruit and vegetable markets and planting 150,000 strawberry plants for next spring’s U-pick season. It’s hard work Rachell said will pay off when the first schoolchildren step off the bus and onto the farm.
“Kids come out to the farm, and they’ve never seen a cow in real life,” Rachell said. “They love to look at the land.”
The children will see agriculture in action at the live animal barn, kid-friendly corn maze and cotton picking play area. They’ll also select their own pumpkin, play in the corn pit and sand box and participate in duck races. The Pentons said they plan to grow next year’s activities.
“We have a lot of ideas, but we can’t do it all in one year,” Scott said.
The Pentons said their main concern about branching out into agritourism was obtaining the best liability insurance on the market.
“We’ve always had Alfa Insurance,” Scott said. “Alfa’s agritourism liability policy helps us protect our farm while still welcoming people to our property for the pumpkin and strawberry patches.”
Alfa Insurance’s Danny Carter encourages farm owners diving into agritourism to call their local agent and look into the company’s agritourism-specific liability coverage.
“It’s our goal to promote safe agricultural practices on agritourism operations to benefit farmers and farm visitors,” said Carter, Alfa’s farm and commercial underwriting manager. “This coverage is outside the scope of your normal farm policy and can be addressed with more specific coverage.”
While the Pentons are newcomers to the pumpkin patch scene, Glenn and Tammy Morgan of LaFayette have operated their family pumpkin patch for 11 years.
Similar to the Pentons, the Morgans noticed a local need for a pumpkin patch. When the family moved to a Chambers County farm, Jack-O-Lantern Lane was born.
“We do this for our community and for families,” Tammy said. “We see families grow and come back year after year, and we recognize them the minute they come through the gate.”
Jack-O-Lantern Lane stays busy hosting several thousand children and families each fall, with almost 600 school children visiting the farm per week from mid-September through October.
The students’ time learning outside the classroom includes a hayride to the pumpkin patch, old-fashioned corn shelling, petting farm animals, picking their prize pumpkin, a train ride, sliding down Silas the Silo (a converted grain bin) and more.
“You forget about any heartache and trouble when you see that first kid smile,” said Glenn, who also works off-farm at Morgan Backhoe Service.
The Morgans said they want children to revel in their time at Jack-O-Lantern Lane, whether petting turkeys, chickens, rabbits and horses or running around the farm.
“We want to let kids be kids,” said Tammy, the executive director of Opelika’s Child Care Resource Center. “It’s also important people see you can still farm and use those resources to pay for the farm.”
Families across Alabama are opening the gates to their farms so community members can learn about food and fiber production. The Alabama Farmers Federation’s Mac Higginbotham said the potential growth for agritourism in the state is tremendous.
“More consumers want to get back to the farm – even for a day – and see where their food comes from,” said Higginbotham, the Federation’s Horticulture Division director. “We’re thankful for families like the Morgans and Pentons, who are taking steps to teach people about agriculture and life on the farm.”
For both families, pumpkin patch preparation begins months before the public ever picks a pumpkin. Schools book farm visits in May, gourds are planted in June, and farm decorating begins in September.
Despite the long hours leading up to pumpkin pickin’ season, the Morgans and Pentons said they’re always ready to share their family’s work and agricultural world with the public.
“It’s a lot of hard work,” Rachell said, “but we’re excited to welcome people to our farm.”
Penton Farms Pumpkin Patch is open to the public Monday through Saturday during October. For more information, visit pentonfarms.com, or find Penton Farms on Facebook.
Jack-O-Lantern Lane is open to the public on weekends Sept. 24 through Oct. 31. For more information, visit jackolanternlane.com, or find Jack-O-Lantern Lane on Facebook.