Walters’ Pumpkin Patch near Burns just keeps on growing.
More acres. More varieties of pumpkins and gourds. More fun attractions for kids. Together, it translates into more fond memories for the folks who visit.
“We keep trying to make it more fun for the kids and the adults—and for ourselves, too,” said Becky Walters, who is co-owner and operator with husband Carroll. “It’d get awful boring, I’m afraid, if we didn’t keep adding.”
The Walters’ agri-tourism venture has come a long way from its humble beginning in 1988, when Becky used a couple of acres of Carroll’s milo field to grow some miniature pumpkins for her employer at the time, a greenhouse in El Dorado.
Today the operation spreads over more than 73 acres of their 1,700-acre farm; 25 of those acres are devoted to growing more than 100 varieties of pumpkins and gourds.
“I remember when we planted six acres and it was like, my goodness, will we ever get to 10?” Becky said. “Now it’s like, yeah, it’s that many acres of pigweed, too.”
Becky’s sense of humor is matched only by her creativity. Coming up with new ideas for the Pumpkin Patch is the most fun part of her involvement.
“I guess because I’m the dreamer, I get real excited,” she said. “I get my best ideas while I’m out mowing. So when I come and tell Carroll I’m going to get on the mower, it scares him to death.”
The more contemplative Carroll, who takes Becky’s humor and ideas in stride, enjoys building the things her fertile mind envisions.
“It’s a great partnership,” Becky said. “We’re opposites that really work well together.”
Carroll devotes his full-time attention and energy to the operation since retiring in 2007 from his refinery job.
“He hasn’t had a day off since,” Becky quipped. “The guys there keep saying, ‘We’ll let you come back out here if you want to get away from your slave-driving wife.”
Pumpkins at the core
The pumpkins and gourds are still a major emphasis at Walters’ Pumpkin Patch.
“We retail everything, but we have a couple of nurseries from Wichita that come over and buy because they know we have the unique stuff,” Becky said. “We don’t wholesale to anybody.”
The couple even offer an educational component about their produce for the 100-plus school groups who come to visit. Steve Reynolds, a retired teacher and city commissioner, takes care of that part of their wagon tours.
As aways, each child goes home with a souvenir pumpkin.
But a big attraction for youngsters are the more than 30 fun activities the Walters have developed on the 48 non-pumpkin acres.
Options range from a zip line, to a giant jumping pillow, to a “Happy 150th Birthday Kansas” corn maze. A huge favorite is the large pumpkin cannon that can launch an 8-pound pumpkin about a half mile.
“That’s an hourly attraction,” Becky said.
The Walters have a goal of adding at least one new attraction each year. This year it’s a replica mining sluice where kids can pan for prizes, a second jumping pillow and a small herd of hoppy horses—durable horse-shaped balloons that kids can ride and race.
The Haunted Cannery, a converted grain elevator, is open for tours every Friday and Saturday evening in October and is outfitted each year with a new array of spooks and ghouls. This year the crew added a new slide that offers a fast but harrowing escape from the barn’s second story.
“People come out every year and see what we’re adding,” Becky said.
A year-round job
Last year, more than 25,000 people came through Walters’ Pumpkin Patch during its six-week season from Sept. 18 through Halloween.
“By that time we’re tired enough to hibernate for the winter,” Becky joked.
The truth is, the operation is a year-round job for both Carroll and Becky.
“We do have the freedom to take a trip if we want to, or go to the grandkids’ football game,” Becky said. “But between the spraying and trimming the tree branches so somebody doesn’t get hit with one on a wagon ride—and we start in November getting the gourds out of the field.”
The planning never ends either.
“I already have my to-do list for Carroll for next year,” Becky said. “My dream list is his to-do list. It just keeps going.”
A business first
Ultimately, Walters’ Pumpkin Patch is a business—and a relatively successful one.
“As Carroll said the other night, it certainly has kept the farm in the black,” Becky said.
Not even this summer’s heat and drought could change that. In fact, it had the opposite effect.
“We’ve had the prettiest pumpkins we’ve ever grown,” Becky said. “I think it’s because we have the creek that runs around the field that gives us probably enough sub-moisture. They just root deep and keep going.
“Up at church, they were praying for rain, and it was like, ‘OK, but not on my pumpkin patch because I don’t want any weeds—we like this.’”
The Walters refrain from being specific about the patch’s profitability.
“If somebody else wanted to get into agri-tourism, and they think they can make the money we do in only a couple of years, they’d be sorely disappointed,” Becky said.
“This is a work in progress, and we have so many expenses,” she added. “Our liability insurance this year is $20,000. My payroll is $29,000. It’s just such a weighted answer to tell someone what they can and can’t do (financially).”
The couple have a support crew of around 50 people, including family members and friends.
“We have a few teenagers, but the majority are women,” Becky said.
Her daughter, Amy, and her family live on the farm. Amy helps with the pumpkin planting and picking and all the behind the scenes work.
“She can pick more pumpkins in 30 minutes than most people can pick in a day’s time,” Becky said.
As for facilities, Carroll and Becky recently upgraded their Pumpkin Pantry and Gift Shop and constructed a covered guest area and pavilion that can accommodate about 40 picnic tables. It has a certified kitchen and serving facility for groups and even weddings.
Becky credits their involvement with agri-tourism organizations for receiving valuable advice and ideas over the years.
She and Carroll attend the Great Plains Growers conference each year, and Becky serves on the board of the North American Direct Farm Marketing Association.
“We wouldn’t be near where we are if we hadn’t put out the money and gone wherever they’re meeting that year,” she said.
Even with all the good advice, the operation still is labor intensive.
“It’s all manual, that’s what’s the hard part,” Becky said. “My daughter and I walk all these fields pulling weeds, every row. The beetles and squash bugs, we have to stay ahead of them and spray all around.”
But the Walters’ investment of energy is paying dividends beyond the bank account.
“If it wasn’t fun, we?wouldn’t be doing it,” Becky said. “At my age, I don’t have to do it anymore.”