Pumpkin farms evolve as 'agritourism' grows
Homer Glen, IL (AP) — Kari Winge has been coming to Bengtson's Pumpkin Fest for as long as she can recall. Her favorite part is the Fun Barn.
"It's just the same as I remember from when I was a kid," said Winge, thinking back to the field trips she and many Will County-area students took. "It hasn't changed a bit."
Winge, of Evergreen Park, was part of a nearly 15-person playdate group of parents and children. They go each autumn to pumpkin-oriented destinations that fall somewhere between farm and theme park.
The group has learned it's better to go on weekdays, so the parents took off work a month in advance.
"This is our big fall fest," she said.
Although the annual trip is nostalgic for Winge, Bengtson's continues to add new features.
Christine Torres, her husband and her daughter, Natalie Torres, 9, also went Monday to Bengtson's. They've gone every year since Natalie was born, except last year.
"There's always something new and something better," said Torres, of Chicago.
She said going to a pumpkin patch is fun, but after you pick out a pumpkin, you go home, carve it and you're done. The intrigue of places such as Bengtson's, she said, are the rides and entertainment that come with it.
In recent years, Bengtson's has added food trucks - El Taco Cocina by Anna, Uncle Bub's BBQ and Wooden Paddle Pizza - to the usual aroma of funnel cakes, apple cider and kettle corn that wafts through the air.
Competitors such as Heap's Giant Pumpkin Farm in Minooka and BronkBerry Farms in Plainfield have emerged, while mainstays Siegel's Cottonwood Farm in Lockport, Konow's Corn Maze in Lockport, Johansen Farms in Bolingbrook and Dollinger Family Farm in Channahon remain popular.
Each tries to offer something different as the trend of "agritourism" continues to help rural economies, Will County Farm Bureau Manager Mark Schneidewind said, adding the county has worked closely with the farming community as such places continue to pop up. However, smaller producers of fall-time goods in the area are starting to feel the pinch, Schneidewind said.
"A lot more people are getting into agritourism," he said of pumpkin farms. "It used to be you could drive down (Route) 52 or (Route) 45 and see one or two, now there's four or five, which makes it convenient for the general public."
But on the flip side, he said some of the smaller family operations that have been around 20 to 25 years have reported declines in sales.
Some farmers have established relationships with grocery stores and hardware stores to supply them with pumpkins and other seasonal products. Meanwhile, he said, other pumpkin farms are so popular they can't grow enough pumpkins to meet the demand so they buy from growers south of Will County.
Illinois produces more pumpkins than any other state, according to the University of Illinois Extension. In 2015, amid a down year for pumpkin production in the state, Illinois still produced 317.9 million pounds of pumpkins - more than twice as many as California, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
All 50 states produce pumpkins, but about half of the total are grown in six states, according to the department's economic research service. Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan and New York are other states known for pumpkin production.