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Good Grief! The Great Pumpkin Patches Make Fall Appearance

Folks come from throughout Southern California to play in Ventura County's numerous fields of the gourd.

October 22, 2005|Fred Alvarez | Times Staff Writer

The Great Pumpkin, it wasn't. In fact, some would argue it wasn't even a very good one, what with its bruises and scars. But to 3-year-old Thomas Brigham of Port Hueneme it was perfect, providing a way to connect with his father, a Navy Seabee stationed more than 7,000 miles away in Iraq.

Like generations of families before them, Thomas, his sister Brittany and mother, Ginevra, scoured the McGrath Street Pumpkin Patch in Ventura this week -- one in a network of pumpkin growers that have established Ventura County as Southern California's pumpkin king.

"We are going to carve it and paint it and send a picture to his dad," said Ginevra Brigham, whose husband, Brian, is due to return in February. "It's great that kids still get a chance to do stuff like this. They can still experience what life was like before all of the buildings."

Holding up a tradition established decades ago, the McGraths and a handful of other farming families in Ventura County throw open their gates in October, drawing pumpkin pickers from across Southern California to a celebration of the fall season. Fields across the county fill with the Halloween globes, shading the landscape with more orange than a Caltrans convention.

Ventura County is Southern California's leading pumpkin producer, growing on nearly 100 acres and raking in more than a quarter of a million dollars. Of counties in California, Ventura produces the state's sixth most valuable pumpkin crop.

While the earnings make up a fraction of the county's $1-billion-a-year farm economy, they represent valuable income to small farmers, especially in these days of soaring production costs and sinking commodity prices.

Moreover, the pumpkin patches serve to draw tens of thousands of visitors to area farms, offering city slickers a front-row view of an industry scrambling to hold its own against suburban sprawl.

"They get to see that farming is not all fun and games," said Karen Schott, who operates the county's oldest pumpkin patch at Faulkner Farm near Santa Paula.

For three decades, thousands of visitors have descended on the century-old farm, a Ventura County landmark. The visitors include more than 5,000 schoolchildren each year, who in the shadow of a stately Queen Anne Victorian pick pumpkins, climb hay bales and navigate a sunflower forest.

But since 1997, when the University of California-administered Hansen Trust purchased the 27-acre property, the farm has served another purpose, providing an open-air laboratory for farm research and exploration of new growing methods.

Schott said October visitors are able to view the whole range of farming, from direct-market sales of pumpkins to efforts to find new products to help growers stay afloat in increasingly competitive markets.

"It gets people thinking, and that's exactly what you want," she said. "The bottom line is, it's still farming and it's still a business."

Fourth-generation farmer Craig Underwood knows that all too well.

Underwood has created the equivalent of an agricultural amusement park amid sprawling tract homes near Moorpark, providing an authentic farm experience to people hungry to reconnect to their rural roots.

An annual Harvest Festival in October is the largest part of his operation, drawing upward of 70,000 people during the month to this greenbelt where kids can run through a corn maze, spring in an inflatable bounce house and lob ears of corn from a booming corn cannon.

And, of course, they can pick pumpkins. The farm grows its own on 16 acres, providing tens of thousands to choose from, including some called Atlantic Giants that weigh in at more than 500 pounds.

Despite a rainstorm this week that forced the operation to shut down for a few days, Underwood said it has been as busy as ever this year.

"People come from all over Southern California," the farmer said. "It's just good, clean family entertainment, and I think people are looking for that."

Longtime farmer David McGrath has a built-in advertising advantage over his pumpkin-selling competitors.

Set on a narrow farm belt along the Ventura Freeway in Ventura, McGrath flies a giant orange balloon over his five-acre pumpkin patch, luring thousands of motorists each year off the busy thoroughfare.

Like others, McGrath said he began selling pumpkins nearly three decades ago to supplement his farming operation. The pumpkin patch has grown over the years to offer customers dozens of varieties of squash and gourds, dried flowers and other decorations to stretch through the fall season.

"I've got news for you, farming doesn't always provide the best income," said McGrath. "It would be awfully hard to make it growing vegetables if I didn't have this retail part of the business."

Still, McGrath acknowledges that it's about more than money.

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