WASHINGTON – Maryland pumpkin farmers say they’re selling more than just a big orange gourd these days — they’re selling pumpkin-picking families a low- cost, wholesome way to spend time together.
Officials say the trend toward “ag tourism” has been growing recently, but may have been boosted this year by the Sept. 11 attacks: At least one vendor said her best sales this year have come near military bases.
“In general we’re starting to see more ag tourism,” said Ray Garibay, a statistician for the Maryland Department of Agriculture. “They’re capitalizing on us urbanites.
“I see a lot of young folks not realizing where food comes from other than the grocery store,” and there has been a huge effort in Maryland to change this, he said.
One pumpkin vendor said she has seen more families returning to traditional seasonal activities such as pumpkin carving and scarecrow making since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
“A lot of people are going back to traditional values,” said Faith Rodell, who owns a chain of seven roadside stands collectively known as the Great Pumpkin Patch.
Rodell, who was working a stand in Calverton this week, said pumpkin sales have been especially high near Maryland military bases. People are getting into things like “motherland and apple pie” and that includes pumpkins, she said.
Steve Weber, a Baltimore pumpkin farmer and president of the Maryland Farm Bureau, said that for the last 20 years people have not been buying as much produce to cook, because most of what they eat now is already prepared. He said it reflects the changing work habits and time restrictions of the modern American family.
“We’ve changed from produce-driven to entertainment-driven,” said Weber, who runs Weber’s Cider Mill Farm, said. “If they can play with it, we can sell no end of it.”
That means that where one pumpkin per family may have been the norm in the 1950s and 1960s, he said, families buy pumpkins now by the “little red wagon load, not by the pumpkin.”
This trend has translated into a steadily increasing amount of land devoted to pumpkin patches in Maryland, Garibay said. In 1999, there were about 1,400 acres devoted to pumpkins in the state; this year, it will be closer to 1,700 acres.
“The overall trend is due to the increasing population and marketing of the `come out to the farm and pick your own’ idea,” he said.
Savvy marketing, according to another pumpkin farmer, is a big reason for an increase in pumpkin sales.
“Farmers come up with innovative ideas to draw people to the farms from the suburbs,” said Gilbert Buddy Bowling, a Charles County pumpkin farmer and executive director of the Maryland Agricultural Commission.
Bowling, a former tobacco farmer who switched to pumpkins about four years ago, said farmers use other fall attractions such as corn mazes and hay rides to bring people in to buy pumpkins.
“It’s a niche market,” Garibay said.
Weber expected Friday would be one of the busiest days of the season, as schools were out for an annual state teachers’ conference. Pumpkin vendors have come to call it “Black Friday.”
But “this place goes quiet at 1 p.m. on Halloween,” he said. “The wagons stop squeaking and there are no kids screaming.”
For now, however, business is booming. Weber said he expected to see between 2,000 and 3,000 people at his farm this weekend.
He said much of the pumpkin patch’s popularity comes from its distinctly fall atmosphere. People come just to “hang out.”
“People have an inborn need to get back to the harvest thing,” Weber said.
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