Pick of the patch: Shelby County is home to several of state’s popular pumpkin patches
Published 9:15 am Monday, October 2, 2023
By BARTON PERKINS | Staff Writer
With the sun beating down on Old Baker Farm and a dense humidity filling the air during one of Alabama’s hottest Julys on record, Leah Baker and her family can already feel the cool fall air.
As sweat beads trickle down their faces, they begin the three-month process of preparing the farm for its biggest event of the year—the Old Baker Farm pumpkin patch.
“We are one of the oldest pumpkin patches around in Shelby County,” said Leah Baker, who helps to run the farm with her parents. “But it comes with a lot of environmental battles.”
Old Baker Farm has been owned and operated by the same family for more than 100 years. For decades, it has been growing and raising many varieties of crops and livestock, but in recent years it has moved away from traditional farming and shifted into events and agro-tourism.
The farm’s pumpkin patch is perhaps the most significant and prosperous.
Pumpkin patches are a staple of the fall season throughout the United States, and they are a massive part of the tourism industry, especially in Shelby County.
The dreadful heat makes it difficult for Old Baker Farm to maintain a pumpkin patch, but it doesn’t deter them from growing their own pumpkins.
Old Baker Farm is an outlier as the only local farm to grow its own pumpkins, but other popular local visits include Helena Hollow and Calera’s Pumpkin Junction, all of which face their own difficulties each year as they put in work for a month long span that brings in the majority of their revenue for the year.
What does it take to have a pumpkin patch in Alabama?
Helena Hollow is an entertainment farm located a little outside of Helena that specializes in public and private events throughout the year, including birthday parties and princess brunches.
The October pumpkin patch is undoubtedly its biggest event.
“We bring our pumpkins in, usually from Michigan,” said Amy Griffin, co-owner of Helena Hollow. “That’s because they grow better there. We bring them in, and set them in a patch.”
Helena Hollow launched The Patch in October 2017 with strong attendance, and the growth has led to it being one of the most visited patches in central Alabama after quadrupling the number of guests over the past six years.
However, as with Old Baker Farm and others across Alabama and the Southeast, the weather in Alabama presents major challenges within an environment not prime for long-lasting pumpkins.
“In our environment they will rot quickly,” Griffin said. “We have one full day of putting pumpkins out and then we have another full day that’s just culling them and picking the rotten ones out.”
Patches in Alabama are forced to regularly replace their pumpkins, and for places like Helena Hollow and Old Baker, it helps that they have been doing it for years.
“Based on crowd numbers and the pattern from year to year, we’ve gotten pretty good at judging how many pumpkins we need per weekend because they’re brought in on a weekly basis,” Griffin said. “So toward the end of the month, we start, you know, thinning out the amount of pumpkins we’re bringing in because there’s so many pumpkins that are completely wasted due to the heat.”
This is one reason Old Baker Farms attempts to grow its own pumpkins each year. Having the pumpkins still on the vine and the constant maintenance they receive helps them last longer.
“My poor dad, he’s the guy who does that,” Baker said. “And I will tell you, he’s probably exhausted from June through October just trying to make it all work.
However, even Old Baker Farm begins to replace pumpkins as the month wears on due to several factors.
“In about the third weekend of the month into October we will have to purchase some pumpkins,” Baker said. “There’s a multitude of reasons that that happens; it could be that the yield there wasn’t quite as good as we anticipated. Another could be the animals destroying the pumpkins or eating them. And then another could be just the public, kids throwing pumpkins at each other.”
All of those factors and many more can lead to discouragement because of all the work put in by each venue, but the hard work pays off with the tourism revenue that comes from it.
Money grows on a vine
Tourism is a major component of why these pumpkin patches are so important to the groups who host them because it’s not just locals who visit these locations, it’s people from across the state and even around the country.
The Heart of Dixie Railroad Museum in Calera has been putting on their pumpkin patch and train ride, Pumpkin Junction, for around three years now, and was awarded third place in USA Today’s 2023’s ‘Best Pumpkin Patch’ as part of its 10Best Readers Choice travel awards. Pumpkin Junction was one of 18 different pumpkin patches throughout the United States being considered for the award and was the only patch in Alabama in consideration.
“I was surprised, thrilled and grateful,” said Lindsay Barnett, events coordinator of The Heart of Dixie Railroad Museum. “It seems like word-of-mouth advertising has gone from person to person to online.”
Helena Hollow and Old Baker Farm also experience a great deal of out-of-state tourism from people visiting their pumpkin patches. Both Baker and Griffin noted that they regularly see the same families driving in from hours away just to get a new picture of their children with the pumpkins.
“People make it a yearly tradition to come for those alone,” Griffin said. “They think it’s really cool to see how your family has changed from year to year by having a picture of them in the same location every year.”
Both Old Baker Farm and Helena Hollow note that the majority of their yearly revenue comes from October and the pumpkin patches they host.
“I would say probably about 60 percent of our revenue is from October,” Baker said.
Similarly, Giffin noted that roughly half of Helena Hollow’s annual revenue is derived from its own pumpkin patch, and while Pumpkin Junction is not The Heart of Dixie Railroad Museum’s primary source of income, it is one of the largest.
However, each one of these pumpkin patches can only generate money in a very limited time from, essentially, the month of October and quickly become a financial drain past that time.
“We have tried opening the last weekend of September before, and that didn’t really work,” Griffin said. “We didn’t get as big of a draw. Then we tried staying open through the first weekend of November, and that also didn’t work. People just really associate October with pumpkin patches.”
As there is such limited time to make money, and the important source of revenue it is for each to keep their farms open, owners go to great lengths to keep their patches in pristine and presentable condition.
“If it’s too dry, or if it’s too wet, it can cause the pumpkins not to grow or cause fungus,” Baker said. “We’ve also batted with deer trying to eat pumpkins, but you just have to stay steady and remind yourself that we do this because we enjoy it.”
Maintaining the level of tourism, and the revenue it generates, requires both a great deal of attention to detail and a willingness to innovate and create new experiences for the guests who return to the same patch year after year.
Helena Hollow and Pumpkin Junction focus on creating new experiences for their clients, ranging from hay rides and bouncy houses for the children to wine tastings for the adults.
“We have a giant, gargantuan pumpkin inflatable that people can take pictures in front of, which is kind of fun,” Barnett said. “It’s been an event that we’ve had for over a decade. It’s still developing and morphing into new and different opportunities.”
For Helena Hollow and Pumpkin Junction, innovation is about introducing new experiences and building increasingly elaborate activities for families.
By contrast, Old Baker Farm focuses much more on what they have established as an agro-tourism location. Everything there centers around teaching an accurate depiction of what life is like on a farm, and by all accounts many people enjoy it.
“We want to keep it as historic as possible,” Baker said. “So we don’t do bouncy houses or anything like that. We only add things that help show what a farm really would have looked like in the early 1900s.”
It’s a bit of a balancing act, constantly refreshing a patch’s supply of pumpkins, while also remaining conscious of where you are in the month of October and how long there is until it’s time to shut the patch down for the year.
Every year, as October comes to an end, so does the pumpkin season. Each patch in Shelby County does its best to try and responsibly deal with the inevitable waste and rotten pumpkins that result.
“At the end of the month, toward that last weekend, whatever pumpkins we have left, if they are in good condition and not rotting, we’ll feed them to our animals,” Griffin said.
Both Helena Hollow and Old Baker Farm make an effort to dispose of non-rotten pumpkins that are left over from the patch by feeding them to animals. But even so, there are still heaps of rotten pumpkins that they can only just throw away.
After tidying up their respective pumpkin patches, each location pivots to their next major holiday event, the Christmas season.
Then, after Christmas has been put to bed and the new year begins, Old Baker Farm begins the long process of once again growing pumpkins for their patch the following October.
“We do enjoy doing it though,” Baker said. “Because I think the public really appreciates being able to come out and really get the sense of what it looks like to have a real working farm.”