Ellisâ€™ Harvest Home offers â€˜agri-tainmentâ€™Written by Jennifer Womack
“I’ve been raising pumpkins for 30 years,” says Dan Ellis. “It started with a couple of plants. Then it was a 10-foot row and the next year it was a 50-foot row. Then it was all the way through a field.”
Today over 30 varieties of pumpkins can be found on the Ellis’ farm and ranch a mile west of Lingle. That number doesn’t include the gourds, produce and corn that are also part of the family’s farm-based business. Visitors can pick their own pumpkins, find their way through the corn maze, purchase mums and choose from a variety of decorative fall items.
“Because they’re fun,” says Dan when asked the reasoning behind the wide variety. “We go from pumpkins that weigh a pound to a variety called Prize Winner. On a more normal year they’ll get 120 to 140 pounds. You have to have a pumpkin for everybody.” There are Cinderella pumpkins, shaped like the fairy tale carriage, and there are the more traditional — dark orange, ribbed, with a sturdy handle — jack-o-lantern pumpkins.
Pointing to the road leading to the pumpkin patch he says, “This is desolation row.” He advises a passing youngster, “Don’t pick one bigger than you can carry. They get heavier the closer to the bus you get.” Just a few yards later her pumpkin is added to those abandoned roadside and she returns for a smaller selection.
Pumpkins aren’t a common crop in southeastern Wyoming, or in Wyoming as a whole. It’s a labor-intensive choice with the year’s harvest picked by hand, one pumpkin at a time. Dan says the crop, on a per-acre basis, uses less water than corn. “One year I clean picked a field, bringing in everything orange. It made 32 ton to the acre.”
Since that time, however, Dan hasn’t been that detailed in his harvest. He instead opts to pick those that are ideal jack-o-lanterns. Those pumpkins are sold to wholesale markets across the region with each customer seeking a certain type of pumpkin based on their market and the type of pumpkin being offered by competitor stores. Dan sees a growing demand for locally grown produce. When diesel hit $4 a gallon he says he could also grow and deliver the pumpkins at a lower cost than the produce trucks leaving grocery warehouses.
“They have to have stems and they have to sit decently. It’s hard to make a face on one that won’t stand up. We’re more selective on what we pick for the wholesale market.” They’re also careful when it comes to handling the pumpkins.
“If you stack them more than three high the stems break,” he explains.
Broken stems aren’t the only challenge in raising pumpkins. As with all crops, Dan says they have their own set of pests. He monitors closely for squash beetles, spraying at the earliest sign. Corn rootworm beetles, which will leave corn in the fall to dine on pumpkins, can also be a challenge. Weeds, says Dan, are the other challenge. He rotates the crop to keep the problem under control and cultivates as long the vines allow.
What Dan and his family don’t pick the cows eat when they’re turned out on the vines and corn stalks for winter grazing. It took the cows a while to learn to eat the pumpkins, but they’re now considered a treat. Dan says the cows break them with their noses.
Pumpkins and gourds have been a part of the Ellis family’s business plan for five years. Two years ago they expanded further, setting aside a field of corn for a maze. Working with a company out of Spanish Fork, Utah, Dan says they come to his farm when the corn is five to six inches tall. This year that was the middle of June. Marking the field, they spray paths killing the corn in areas that will eventually make up the maze.
The 2009 maze, depicting the Lingle mascot, covers an 11-acre field. Dan and his wife Karri’s son is a senior at Lingle High School this year, which explains the pattern selection.
Visitors are welcome from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekends through Nov. 1. On Oct. 4-5 the family will offer a moonlight maze, given the full moon, from 8-10 p.m. Oct. 10-11 is school pride weekend when participants can get $1 off by wearing their school colors. Oct. 17-18 from 8-10 p.m. is the flashlight maze, scheduled in conjunction with the new moon. During the week Dan says they host school groups, church groups and others.
While it sounds like an outing for youngsters, Dan says, “We’ve had a couple of senior citizen groups come down and do the maze.”
Cost is $9 for adults, $7 for kids five to 12 and kids five and under are free with an adult.
In the years to come the Ellis family hopes to keep growing their business right along with their pumpkins. They’re inviting vendors and hope to host groups like the antique tractor club. They’re also weighing their greenhouse options, considering whether or not high tunnels would be a wise business investment for expanding their produce line and season of availability.
“It’s agri-tainment and agri-tourism,” says Dan. He jokes, “If they ever start trading pumpkin futures I’ll need to find a different crop.”
Delivering pumpkins to the grocery store in Torrington he says he was blocking the front door to unload them into the storefront display. Passersby made comments like, “Oh good, it’s pumpkin season,” and “I just love fall.” He laughs, “I don’t get that when I take a load of corn to the elevator.”