Field of screams

Today, the last weekend day before Halloween, is the last chance for families to enjoy hay rides, pumpkin picking and corn mazes at farms in the Boulder Valley and Northern Colorado. For many area farmers, the fall fests are a family tradition and a labor of love. For some, they’re a major money-maker.

And for a few, their very livelihood depends on it.

More than a score of fall-themed attractions have sprouted in rural areas along the northern Front Range, from now-iconic venues such as Anderson Farms near Erie and Fritzler Farm Park near LaSalle that have built themselves into full-fledged seasonal amusement parks to comparatively tiny pumpkin patches with roadside produce stands.

It’s entertainment. It’s education. It’s an annual chance for families and friends to gather.

But it’s also business, with its own unique set of challenges — from quirky weather to spiraling costs, labor shortages, liability insurance and government restrictions.

And it’s fairly certain that even the best schools of agriculture, such as that at Colorado State University, don’t train farmers to be entertainers — or even entertainment agents and marketers. They have to learn it as they go.

“Most of the year, I’m just a farmer,” said Bob Condon at Cottonwood Farm near Lafayette. “This time of year, it’s definitely half and half with entertaining. Unless you have a huge field you can turn people loose in to gather pumpkins, you’ve got to have interesting things for them to do. And you have to keep getting new customers because our customers outgrow us. But at least some come back with their kids.”

Anderson and Fritzler have that part down pat.

A huge pumpkin adorns a towering silo and creates a central meeting spot for wandering families at Anderson Farms near Erie. Dallas Heltzell/BizWest

The 250-acre Anderson Farms, Colorado’s longest-running autumn attraction complete with a 40-acre pumpkin patch and a 30-acre corn maze that turns by night into “Terror in the Corn,” boasts activities including barrel-train and wagon rides, a petting zoo, pumpkin picking and launching, arts and crafts, an agricultural education center, music and magic shows, family photo opportunities around every corner and private campfire sites. The place is so popular that tickets ranging from $17 to $37 are purchased on a timed-entry basis.

“A majority of the attractions we came up with ourselves or learned about through a networking group we belong to that has a lot of other farms like us across the country,” said operations manager Rochelle Wegele, who can trace her family line back to 1911, when Swedish emigrants August and Josephine Anderson purchased a farm south of Mead.

When the government purchased part of that farm in 1958 for the construction of Interstate 25, Wegele’s grandparents used the proceeds to buy the current farm near Erie. Her father, Jim Johnson, decided to start a small pumpkin patch in 1997 and offered hay rides to it for the first few years. Colorado’s first corn maze was added two years later — and the rest is history.

The nightly “Terror in the Corn” frightfest in the corn maze began in 2001 and is wrapping up its 21st season. “We developed it in house,” Wegele said. “We have a team of three full-time managers, and it’s their job to create and develop it.”

Anderson Farms is open six days a week during the autumn run, and “we could have 10,000 people per day on a weekend day,” Wegele said. “Last year we had almost 200,000 total.”

There’s “a lot of costs involved in getting it going,” she said. “We have 460 employees, and all but 10 are seasonal. A lot of them work the six weeks we’re open, and some help us set up and take down. We definitely do have pretty high insurance costs too. When you’re considered an amusement park, your insurance is pretty high. We license our barrel train as an amusement-park ride.”

Liability insurance is a concern at many of the visitor-oriented farms, especially those that let children get up close and personal with animals.

Anderson Farms brings in a few outside vendors that carry their own insurance. Kodiak Ranch in Brighton runs the petting zoo and pony rides, and sells tiny cups of hay pellets for $5 each that children can feed to the animals.

Full Circle Farms in Longmont, doing fall business as the Rocky Mountain Pumpkin Ranch, also hires a partner vendor for its petting zoo, but office manager Lauren Freas said insurance costs have doubled in recent years, especially for its mini roller coaster and bouncy house.

“We almost couldn’t get insurance for our inflatables,” she said. “Our former insurance company won’t insure inflatables any more. And for our partner vendors at the carnival, I’m sure their costs have increased too.”

Bartles Pumpkin Patch, on the east side of Fort Collins, manages its own petting zoo.

“We carry special-event insurance because one or two kids might get their finger in a sheep’s mouth,” said Doug Bartels, who began welcoming October visitors to the farm 22 years ago. “Those animals are still animals, and fingers in the mouth? Sometimes the little pigs don’t like that.”

Anderson Farms’ revenue hasn’t always been so good, Wegele said. Just as with farming itself, “it depends on the year. Weather can have a big impact, and sometimes we don’t do well.”

Condon echoed that concern.

“Fall stuff is what we grow” at Cottonwood, he said. “Our whole income comes in in late September and all of October. We do sell Christmas trees later, but 95% comes in October — and 90% of that happens on Saturday and Sunday. If we lose a busy weekend because of snow or something, you never make that back.”

“It’s really such a tossup,” Freas said. “This year the weather’s been good every weekend. But as farmers, you spend the first eight months shelling out money. It’s hard to see how we’re going to land until December.”

Pam Osborn, co-owner of Osborn Farm in Loveland, agreed. “It really depends on the year,” she said. “The pumpkins had a rough time this year. The heat wave hit when the blossoms were just coming out, and a lot of them just didn’t make it. If we have a big freeze, we could close really early.”

All the fall festivals were staggered by the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting government restrictions.

Anderson Farms kids feeding sheep
Children at Anderson Farms feed compressed hay pellets to sheep and goats supplied by Brighton-based partner vendor Kodiak Ranch. Dallas Heltzell/BizWest

“During COVID we barely broke even in 2020” at Anderson Farms, Wegele said. “The rules kept changing on us up to the week we opened, and we definitely couldn’t offer everything we normally do.”

At the Rocky Mountain Pumpkin Ranch, “we have plans to do it again next year, but if things don’t pan out we may re-evaluate,” Freas said. “Costs for farm equipment have gotten huge because of the pandemic. And some parts we can’t get — they said it was 18 months out. It was crazy.”

No additional attractions are planned so far at Anderson Farms, Wegele said, but the farm has begun offering “U-pick” sunflowers in August, “and that’s really taken off.”

The U-pick pumpkin patch is just part of the fun at Fritzler Farm Park, which also boasts pillow jumps, slides, inflatables, pumpkin cannons, pedal go-karts, a barrel train and a beer garden. After dark on Friday and Saturday nights, the 15-acre corn maze, which has been open to the public since 2000, turns into “Scream Acres.” Admission prices for the park range from $19.95 to $36.95, with separate tickets for Scream Acres, where actors haunt the path until 10 p.m. Owner Glen Fritzler is known for infusing patriotic themes into his attractions.

Bartles, who also offers a four-acre U-pick garden, said his fall activities have accounted for more than 85% of his annual revenue, up from 1% or 2% when he started them. “It wasn’t such a big deal, but now it is,” he said. “Agritourism has really exploded.”

Cottonwood Farms is in its 27th year near Lafayette, Condon said, and “I can’t think of anybody who’s been doing this less than 10 years.”

He charges just $5 admission, with children and seniors admitted free. They get to see a 1906 Case steam-traction engine for threshing grain that still runs, and other tractors from the 1930s through 1960s.

“Our maze is a small one, a couple acres, so it doesn’t have a theme like the big ones,” Condon said. “It’s just right and left turns. My grandson designed it. It’s especially for smaller kids and families; it gives them as much as they want.”

Still, the fall activities are an important part of the farm’s income, he said.

“We’d barely break even if we didn’t do some of the entertainment part and charge admission,” he said. “We just try to have things that are farm-related — a few games like cornhole that keep it pretty low-key — and we try to slip in a little education while we’re at it.”

Like many businesses of all types these days, he said, it’s been hard to find workers.

“We have a couple key people, but the rest of it you’re scrambling all the time to keep the jobs covered. I did the best when the kids were in high school, because they had lots of friends and contacts.”

Still, he said, “the whole thing is worth it. At some point things have to come to an end or change, but at this point we’re doing OK.”

For 20 autumns, Countryside Farms near Timnath has become Jack Lantern’s Corn Maze, and co-owner Jena Martindale said she and her husband, Jason, “would not be able to make our farm payments if we didn’t have it. Having a loan on the farm, there’s no way we could not do our farm festival and survive.”

They charge $8 to $12 for folks to visit and see their cheery daytime corn maze, two pumpkin patches, farm animals, bouncy house, pedal cars and more.

Jason, a third-generation farmer, purchased the farm himself; his family raises vegetables and alfalfa on 400 acres near Platteville. Jena also is a real-estate agent with Hayden Outdoors and sells farm and ranch properties.

“Everything costs more this year — seed, fertilizer and employees,” Jena Martindale said. “Diesel costs are insane — over $5.50 a gallon. With the amount of costs for farming nowadays, I don’t know if a lot of people are going to be able to continue to do it.

“We normally do a haunted maze, but we can’t find reliable employees to staff it every night. So we just focus on daytime fun. My husband sets up the maze himself; it’s all in his head.

“It’s been nice to do the daytime stuff for sure, but we didn’t raise our prices this year,” she said. “We’ve kept it as low as possible because everyone else is raising prices. We know it’s hard on families with gas prices and food prices alone.”

Things are a bit more elaborate at Hankins Farm near Johnstown, which charges $13.50 admission and touts its zombie shoot, a foam-ball archery range and scavenger hunts. Its corn maze includes “The Farm Scene Investigation” game.

Owner Darren Hankins’ family has run the farm since 1910.

“This year has gone well, with really good weather,” he said. “We’re only open on the weekends because it’s an ancillary activity for the farm. Since COVID, it’s really picked up, and kids under 14 are kind of our demographic.”

His is a working farm year-round, and he estimated the public fall activities account for “maybe a fifth to a fourth” of the farm’s annual revenue. “It’s not something I can quit my day job and do full time,” he said. “But we employ some high-school kids for it, which is an extra benefit.”

Osborn Farm, at Colorado Highway 402 and South Boise Avenue in Loveland, is a great example of how the fall farm festivals have taken off. The farm has been family-owned since 1861, and Pam and Dale Osborn have run it for 43 years, now with the help of their three sons and their wives..

“When we started, I couldn’t give pumpkins away,” Pam Osborn said. “We just piled them on a road with a sign that said ‘free.’ Now we have over 1,000 people on a nice Saturday, and there are lines of people waiting to weigh their pumpkins.”

The Osborns leave most of them in the field and provide visitors with wheelbarrows to go out and pick them.

“No rides, no games. We’re pretty simple, and it works for us,” she said. “We have about three food trucks. People come out and run into their friends. They’re always in a good mood. We see the grandchildren of people that have come in the past.”

Along Colorado Highway 66 in Longmont, the main focus of the Rocky Mountain Pumpkin Ranch is selling pumpkins, but it also offers such activities as a hay maze, cornstalk tunnel, pony rides, fire truck slide and petting zoo — “something fun for families to do while they’re shopping,” Freas said.

Admission is free, but fees are charged for some of the attractions. The farm started as a pumpkin patch and now is a certified-organic grower.

Freas said “it takes a lot of time, a lot of hours, a lot of physical labor” to set up and run the autumn festival there. Planning begins in August and the setup begins in September, she said, adding that she was grateful for the chance to talk about the work and expense it takes to make it happen.

“People assume these places have to be making so much money, and they don’t see the costs before the crowds get there,” she said, including expenses for planting, water and labor, “and then the payroll and labor costs to set it up.”

What makes it all worthwhile, she said, is that “it’s such nostalgia for me personally. This is our 30th anniversary. My parents started it when I was 3, and I’m 33 now and have my own 3-year-old.

“It’s not like the big mazes,” she said. “We cater to kids 10 years and younger — kind of a niche market, elementary age and toddler.”

Admission is free at Hergenreder Farms on Weld County Road 5 east of Longmont, where families can enjoy a pumpkin patch, corn and hay-bale mazes and a corn sandbox. Munson Farms, on Valmont Road near Boulder, also charges no admission, and families can shop for pumpkins, gourds and other produce, take a hayride and explore the corn maze.

Rock Creek Farm in Broomfield has pumpkins for the picking, farm animals, mystery games, pumpkin sweets and a Bigfoot-themed corn maze. The maze at 7th Generation Farm in Louisville is made from hay bales, but there’s also a tractor hayride and farm animals to meet.

The U-pick universe at Ya Ya Farm and Orchard along Colorado 66 northwest of Hygiene is centered on apples, not pumpkins, but it also has its share of barnyard animals and honeybees.

Shooting corn from a cannon and pumpkins from a trebuchet is all the rage at Something from the Farm Pumpkin Patch on South Timberline Road in Fort Collins, where families also can balefully explore a maze. In midtown Fort Collins, meanwhile, Spooky’s Pumpkin Patch caters to those who enjoy carving jack-o’-lanterns. It sells pumpkins that are just right for carving, having been bred with thicker skins, as well as carving kits, tools and patterns.

Education is top of mind at Sunflower Farm in Longmont, which includes the Sprouthouse Preschool. At its Farmfest, children and adults can meet and feed animals while learning about how they were bred and raised.

Many of those who run the area’s autumn-themed attractions say their ancestors probably couldn’t have imagined how the fall festivals have exploded in popularity.

“I don’t know what my dad and granddad would have thought,” Bartels said. “Dad thought pumpkins were the silliest thing. Now we have 86 acres of pumpkins, and we’ll plant more next year. We have to. Hail damage can ruin a whole field, and then we have to supplement from other growers. If we don’t have pumpkins, we’re not a pumpkin patch.”

Dealing with the public hasn’t been a big deal, he said. “You learn just to go with the flow. We haven’t had any bad incidents — but we are overwhelmed. It’s a chaotic mess, but it’s just a wheel and we roll with it.

“But we do look forward to Nov. 1.”

Anderson Farms corn maze
By day, Anderson Farms’ sprawling 30-acre corn maze, complete with observation tower, is a haven for families. By night, with a separate admission, it becomes “Terror in the Corn,” haunted by spooky props and a cast of actors. Dallas Heltzell/BizWest

Source: BizWest

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