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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

The Pumpkin Patch Man

Growing--and Sharing--His Crop Is an Annual Rite for Moorpark Farmer

October 31, 2000|JOSH KARP | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

MOORPARK — He doesn't decorate his house with them and he prefers a different sort of pie, but Rick Brecunier finds himself surrounded by hundreds of pumpkins every October.

The Moorpark resident, who owns Tierra Rejada Family Farms with his wife, Linnea, has been growing several tons of pumpkins every year for nearly three decades. The planting begins in mid-June and culminates in early fall, when thousands of people visit the farm to pick the orange gourds and tour the grounds.

The 55-year-old Brecunier, who estimates that he cultivated about 24 tons of pumpkins this year, used to grow many more. He gave up more than two-thirds of his pumpkin crop two years ago to downsize his operation and concentrate on other endeavors, such as renting out a portion of his farm for corporate functions.

But Brecunier still clings to his pumpkin roots.

About 8,000 children, mostly from Ventura and Los Angeles counties, visit the farm each October with their schools to pick out pumpkins, take hayrides and look around.

And Brecunier is right there with them, leading the tours.

"I enjoy seeing how excited the kids are," he said. "It's the discovery that they're seeing real things. They're seeing real tractors and hay and pumpkins."

Claudia Udy, a day-care teacher with Home Away from Home in Topanga Canyon, took her class of children ranging from 2 to 13 years old to the farm Monday afternoon. She brings them every year, she said.

"They love this," Udy said. "They know this place now and really look forward to coming here to pick their pumpkins."

Brecunier gave two other tours Monday and will lead a few more today. Today, many of those children will decorate their pumpkins and trick-or-treat around their neighborhoods. But Brecunier will take a well-deserved rest, since he spent every day this month giving tours or selling pumpkins.

"I don't need to see another pumpkin at this point," he joked.

That's not to say that Brecunier doesn't welcome the sight of them. What began as an experiment has turned into a big part of his life.

Brecunier met his wife as an undergraduate at Grinnell College in Iowa. The couple married in 1967 after graduation, joined the Peace Corps and headed to Bolivia. Brecunier, an economics major, taught peasants how to set up savings-and-loan cooperatives, while his wife taught English and health. Farming never entered his mind as a long-term profession, but neither did much else at the time.

"I didn't really have a clear idea of what I wanted to do," he said.

The couple came to Moorpark to work on her father's farm in 1969. Farming then grew on Brecunier, and he began to take over more responsibility. When it appeared that the walnut business was shifting to the north in 1972, Brecunier decided to try pumpkins.

He and his wife, now a teacher at Peach Hill Elementary School, planted a couple of acres--an acre typically yields five to 10 tons of pumpkins--and placed a sign outside the farm on Moorpark Road.

"Once we set them out and people saw that we had them, they started coming," Brecunier said. And they haven't stopped since.

There have been down years in terms of production--a hot spell burned holes in many pumpkins in 1987 and earlier in the decade all the pumpkins were distorted with bumps--but for the most part, Brecunier has little to complain about.

"You take the good years and the bad years and hope you come out ahead over the long run," he said. "Let's just say we're still doing it."

Brecunier leases most of the acreage on his farm, which spans 170 acres, to longtime friend Craig Underwood, who about five years took over most of the fruit and vegetable responsibilities from Brecunier and now shoulders most of the pumpkin load. Brecunier now uses about 30 acres for orange crops, 25 acres for avocados, five acres to lease for events and three for pumpkins.

He usually sells leftover pumpkins to other farmers, who feed them to their animals. The rest he grinds into the soil.

By the look of things Monday, not many will remain. Dozens of children ran around a hay maze and picked pumpkins as their parents watched.

Alex Kolb of Woodland Hills came with his wife and son, Bryce, who on Monday celebrated his 3rd birthday.

"I want a big one," Bryce said.

On Monday, Brecunier couldn't help watching the energetic youths search for their own.

"He really likes doing this," said June Verloop, the farm's sales manager. "He's a very nice man and definitely knows what he's doing."

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