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VALLEY BUSINESS | HORROR INCORPORATED

Family-Run Pumpkin Farm Carves Itself a Niche

Agriculture: Since the 1960s, savvy marketing has helped the owners of Lombardi Ranch in Saugus make a living in a seedy business. Petting zoo is also a feature.

October 24, 2000|LEE CONDON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SAUGUS — This fall nearly 10,000 schoolchildren will visit the Lombardi Ranch to see how a real pumpkin farm works. The ranch gets a nominal fee--$20 per school--but the real payoff comes later.

"The kids have such a good time that they bring their parents back on the weekend," said Joann Lombardi, who runs the ranch with her husband, Bob.

That's when the ranch cashes in as parents buy pumpkins, tomatoes, corn and squash. Then they tell their friends about the ranch, where a family can spend several hours touring the petting zoo or visiting "scarecrow alley" in the cornfields.

Since the late '60s, the Lombardis have been able to make a living off the 140-acre ranch on Bouquet Canyon Road. Joann Lombardi credits those field trips with creating a loyal base of customers who come back year after year.

"We sell a lot of pumpkins, 300 to 400 tons of pumpkins a year," said Lombardi, who declined to share the annual revenue at the ranch.

The Lombardis are by far the No. 1 commercial pumpkin growers in Los Angeles County, said Bob Donley, a deputy director for the county's agricultural commissioner.

The 60 acres farmed by the Lombardis for pumpkins is well ahead of No. 2, Cal Poly Pomona, which grows pumpkins on 16 acres, and the R & M Pumpkin Farm on the east side of Lancaster, which has 10 acres dedicated to pumpkin production.

Agricultural inspectors estimate the total annual value of the Los Angeles pumpkin crop at about $102,000. That number is expected to rise this year because of healthy crops and strong demand from the Midwest, where large pumpkin crops failed.

California is actually the nation's No. 2 commercial pumpkin producer behind Illinois, which mostly produces pumpkins for the canning market.

Bob Krauter, a spokesman for the California Farm Bureau, said the state grew at least 80,000 tons of pumpkins in 1998 (the latest year available) with an estimated value of $11 million. But many counties don't even track pumpkin production, he noted.

While California may be second in pumpkin production, pumpkins don't even make the list of the top 70 agricultural commodities grown in the state. And pumpkins don't even come close to No. 70 on the list--the chile pepper, which has an estimated production value of $30 million.

Doug Mosebar, the vice president of the California Farm Bureau and the proprietor of Gainey Ranch in Santa Ynez, said the big winners in the pumpkin business are people like the Lombardis who both grow and sell their own produce.

Mosebar said he grows about 50 acres of pumpkins, but he sells them to various pumpkin patches and stores. He wholesales a 20-pound pumpkin to retailers for $1.40, which a pumpkin patch will turn around and sell for $10.

"There's not a big return for us. What we're trying to do is create a lot of volume," Mosebar said. He would sell the pumpkins himself, but his farm lacks the most important feature of a pumpkin stand--a high-traffic corner.

Lombardi Ranch was run variously as a potato and strawberry farm by Bob Lombardi's father in the 1940s. It lay fallow from the early 1950s through 1966, when Joann and Bob decided to plant pumpkins and other fruits and vegetables.

Bob took care of the crops, and Joann ran the retail side. It was the perfect job for Joann, who put her three young daughters and son to work at the food stand.

"We have regular customers who have seen my kids grow up here," said Joann, now the grandmother of six. "I had my kids with me all the time. It was good for them. None of my kids are afraid of hard work."

Today, Joann is bossing around other people's children. Every year a new group of teenagers comes in to work at the farm. For many, it's the first job they've ever had. And Joann is a tough boss. Spying a group of three young workers chatting by the petting zoo, she cracks the whip.

"That doesn't look like a three-man job. That looks like a one-man job," Lombardi yells to them.

While the stand is Joann's domain, she leaves the pricing of the pumpkins to her husband.

"He wants to get into the Guinness Book of World Records for pricing more pumpkins than anyone," Joann said.

*

He has a knack for pricing them fairly. Joann said if she priced them, there would be identical pumpkins in the same row with wildly different prices.

"I get confused, but he's really consistent," Joann said.

The prices range from 75 cents for a very small pumpkin to $25 for a very large one. Most pumpkins sell for about $4 to $5 and weigh about 20 pounds.

"But a small pumpkin can be more expensive if it's very pretty," Bob said.

And looks aren't everything.

"Some people like ugly pumpkins too," Bob said.

The pumpkins at Lombardi Ranch are seen all over the world. Companies that specialize in providing plant life for movie and television productions come to Lombardi ranch every summer.

Because television shows and movies film out of season, they need pumpkins for Halloween shots sooner than the general public.

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