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Ventura County

Carving Pumpkins and New Niche

Farming: Ventura County growers add attractions, such as rides and crafts sales, to draw city dwellers to the annual fall harvest.

October 04, 2002|JESSICA BLANCHARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Pumpkin connoisseurs know that searching for the perfect gourd is half the fun. Disdaining the pre-picked selections at the supermarket, they flock to the pumpkin patches that dot the county, reveling in the "farm experience."

But the simple pumpkin patches of a decade ago have evolved into entertainment centers, complete with weekend craft festivals, free concerts, elaborate animal exhibits and rides. This combination of agriculture and entertainment--sometimes dubbed agri-tourism--doesn't contribute much to Ventura County's billion-dollar farm economy.

But some agriculture officials say the idea is catching on throughout the state as more farmers jump on the bandwagon in the hope that visiting families will develop an appreciation for agriculture and become repeat customers.

"Kids now have no association with the farm any more," said Craig Underwood, owner of Underwood Farm Market and operator of Tierra Rejada Family Farms in Moorpark. "That's what we're trying to bring back. And it's hard to get people who are so busy to come out to the farm to buy produce."

The solution, he says, is to offer school tours and add more farm-themed amusements to attract and entertain families. "The best way to educate is to entertain," Underwood said.

Judging from the enthusiastic reactions of 51 giddy preschoolers on a recent school tour at Tierra Rejada, their approach is effective. The children listened attentively to a short lesson on how pumpkins are grown, then chattered excitedly during a 15-minute horse-drawn hayride around the farm.

But it was the other attractions--the wooden play structure in the shape of a train, the giant pyramid of hay bales, the pygmy goats scampering on an overhead ramp and the chance to pick out that perfect pumpkin--that really captured their attention.

The goal is to get visitors to realize the importance of agriculture in their lives, said Randii MacNear, longtime manager of Davis Farmers Market and a regional representative of the North American Farmers' Direct Marketing Assn., which promotes agri-tourism.

"It's kind of funny, because California has the least amount of this activity happening, but we're the largest agriculture-producing state," she said. "But it's a very interesting phenomenon that's just starting to hit. It's an effort to get people to the farm any way you can, so they can make a connection and understand that agriculture is everywhere and that whatever you're eating, it came from a farm."

But in an age of waning attention spans, farmers find they have to constantly be on the lookout for new ideas to attract customers.

"You always have to do something else," said Suzannah Underwood, who manages special projects at Tierra Rejada and Underwood Farm Market. "You just need to keep offering more things to bring people in. And for those people who have come before, we want to give them something new."

Over the years, visitors have come to expect hayrides, farm animal displays and arts and crafts booths, putting the pressure on farmers around the county to offer something extra to entice visitors to their pumpkin patch.

In Santa Paula, Faulkner Farms is opting for variety, hoping to draw people by offering 25 types of squash, Indian corn, gourds and mini-pumpkins. At Tierra Rejada, farm managers are promoting their new "mini-corn maze."

And in Fillmore, a vintage train dubbed the "Pumpkinliner" will make several weekend trips to a recently developed pumpkin patch outside Fillmore, where visitors can view exhibits from a traveling children's museum, watch pumpkin sculpting and visit with a "wicked witch."

The need to come up with new attractions concerns Rex Laird, executive director of the Ventura County Farm Bureau. He points to the evolution of Knott's Berry Farm from a 20-acre parcel to a 160-acre amusement park and resort as an example of agri-tourism running amok. "Where do you stop?" he asked.

While Laird believes there is the potential to develop a stronger link between tourism and agriculture in the county, he cautions that agri-tourism will never replace traditional farming.

But Craig Underwood dismisses the idea that agri-tourism could ever become that big. "You always want to see things improving," he said. "There's always going to be that pressure. But this will always be a farm, as far as we're concerned."

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FYI

Boccali's Ranch, 11675 Santa Paula-Ojai Road, Ojai. Pumpkin patch opens Saturday. Open daily 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. For more information, call 640-0518.

Faulkner Farm, 14292 W. Telegraph Road, Santa Paula. Pumpkin patch and harvest festival feature hayrides, free concerts, an animal petting area, pony rides and an arts and crafts show. Open 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily through Oct. 31. Admission is $1 per person over age 1 on weekends. For more information, call 525-2226.

The "Pumpkinliner" vintage train runs from Fillmore to a recently developed pumpkin patch, where visitors can choose a pumpkin, view exhibits from a children's museum, watch pumpkin sculpting and visit with a "wicked witch." Departs weekends in October, beginning Saturday. For more information and reservations, call 524-2546 or (800) 773-8724.

Tierra Rejada Family Farms, 3370 Moorpark Road, Moorpark. Pumpkin patch and fall festival feature farm rides, a mini-corn maze, animal exhibits, a wooden play center and live music on the weekends. Vendors will sell handmade items during the Crafters' Weekend on Saturday and Sunday.

The farm is open 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily through Oct. 31. Admission is $3. For more information, call 529-3690.

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