Visitors to area pumpkin patches could have plenty to pick from this year.
Plenty of moisture in early subsoil and a hot, dry season’s finish have fostered a bumper crop of big, solid fruit with good stems and little rot on Becky Walters’ 30 acres.
Walters, co-owner of Walters’ Pumpkin Patch, says this year’s crop is the best she and husband, Carroll, have seen in four decades as growers.
“We have the most awesome pumpkins we have ever had,” she said. “We had good weather and the Good Lord blessed us I guess, because we have not done anything different. They are beautiful this year.”
Most fall crops will do well if they catch early summer rain, and this year was no exception, county extension agent Rickey Roberts said.
“We had nice rains in July where we got our soil profile full of moisture,” he said. “It doesn’t do that every year.”
In July, the county was soaked with 7.12 inches of rain, which is 3.22 inches above average.
The generous rains dried up in August and September, which saw 0.38 and 2.31 inches, down from averages of 4.12 and 3.50 inches.
For the three-month stretch, the county had 9.81 inches of rain, which is 1.71 inches below normal, said Robb Lawson forecaster with the National Weather Service in Wichita.
The hot, dry weather that finished off some patches was the bane of others.
Rod Jirak, owner of Jirak Brothers Produce in Tampa said too-hot overnight temperatures kept his plants from pollinating as well.
But he still has plenty of plump fruit fit for carving.
“It’s not like we didn’t get a lot of pumpkins, the crop is just a little smaller,” he said. “We still have pumpkins available.”
A smaller crop is fine this year, because COVID-19 has weakened demand for shipments and schools aren’t chartering field trips.
Walters said she has some school groups visit this year, but most of them are homeschoolers.
Despite this, Walters is having one of the best years it has ever had as families tired of coronavirus-imposed lockdowns seek safe, outdoor fun.
“People are tired of being at home and watching their own four walls,” she said. “They want to get out in the open air and that’s where we have the benefit of being a farm because people feel safe here.”
Guests can ride wagons out to a 30-acre patch and wrestle their choice of pumpkins from the stem. Visitors will find white, green and beige pumpkins in the vines along with traditional orange.
“We’ve got a new one this year called grizzly bear and it’s a short, beige, one that has a lot of warts on it and it’s really cute, too,” she said. “If you can find the new unique pumpkins they will usually sell very well.”
Pumpkin patch owners are a family of their own, but many are choosing to drop out this year, Walters said.
Growers in Sublette, Dorrance, and Whitmore shut down their patches amid COVID-19 concerns.
Producing pumpkins is also labor intensive. Patches need to be weeded by hand because pumpkin vines grow too thick for cultivators.
“It’s not something you can plant and let go,” she said.
Walters still has her first note from a schoolchild thanking her for a visit from 1988 to remind her of a time when she put off a teacher who wanted a field trip for her students.
“I thought, ‘they might get stung by a bee, they might get stuck in the field or on the bus,” she said. “I had more excuses than she did kids.”
The children visited and it was good, she said.
“At the end of the day, I don’t know who had more fun, me or the kids,” she said.
Walters’ Pumpkin Patch will be open until Nov. 1.
Hours are 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and 1 p.m. to 7 p.m. on Sundays.
The park is closed Monday and Tuesday to allow staff to clean and disinfect.