Stephanie Marchini loves growing pumpkins, but she loves teaching kids about growing them even more. She is the wife of Jeff Marchini, president of J. Marchini Farms in Le Grand, CA, a leading producer of specialty Italian produce including radicchio, fennel, Tuscan cabbage, Puntarelle, Cardone and Romanesco. The company is particularly well-known for its Black Mission and Kadota figs, and its Marchini almonds.But pumpkins are Ms. Marchini's passion. She and her sister-in-law, Fania Wright, oversee the Bear Creek Pumpkin Patch, which is located on the family's Fox Creek Ranch.
"We started growing pumpkins in 1996," said Ms. Marchini. "We felt there was a void in the community for interesting and educational venues for school groups. The year before I saw an article in Martha Stewart Living magazine about heirloom pumpkins that intrigued me, but the seeds were difficult to source. I spoke with Eldon Parker of Lockhart Seeds who helped us find them, and the rest is pumpkin history."
Bear Creek's heirloom varieties include Musquee de Provence, Rouge Vif D'Etampes and Jaune Gros de Paris, all from France; Marina de Chioggia, from Italy; Queensland Blue from Australia; Long Island Cheese from North America, and Guatemalan Blue, from Guatemala.
Bear Creek is on approximately 10 acres of land, and today it is more like an agritourism destination than just a pumpkin patch. Ms. Marchini said that Halloween typically focuses on decorations and spooking neighbors with fun and scary costumes, "but we focus on the seed to the fully grown fruit so children can learn about how pumpkins are grown," she said. Most school tours are kindergarten and first-grade students, who are easily enticed by new and exciting adventures.
There is also a historic, educational aspect to Bear Creek tours. The children are introduced to the history and culture of the Native Americans who inhabited the region years ago. The pumpkin site is where the Yokut tribe once came for water and to perform rituals.
"We tell them about the huts and lifestyles of the Yokuts, including about their tools, such as the grinding stones," said Ms. Marchini. "We do face paintings and the children get little gift pumpkins."
The "little" pumpkin patch accommodates groups of as many as 500 children a day, and typically around 300, from Oct. 1 to the end of the month each year. Schools groups from as far as an hour and a half away visit each year.
Ms. Marchini said that teaching the children about heirloom pumpkin varieties is also important.
"Some of these seed varieties go back to the Revolutionary War," she explained. "Preserving them is like preserving a part of history."
Bear Creek also has a five-acre corn maze called Fox Maze. It's the Marchini family's own design, and they change it every year. After October when the pumpkin patch is closed until the next year, they harvest the corn for silage.
Bear Creek Pumpkin Patch is also a perfect place for families to picnic, celebrate birthdays and for photo opts. Ms. Marchini said the backdrop of oak trees tucked into almond orchards, the corn maze, fall flowers in full bloom, straw bales, squashes, painted gourds and the wide variety of pumpkins offer beautiful photo results. She added that people who visit for the first time are always pleasantly surprised to witness the area.
"We also have this really neat old barn on the site," she added. "Sometimes we'll bring a mobile wood burning pizza oven in and light it up at night for a great family get-together."
The overall area is also evolving in ways that will help to attract even more and bigger crowds. Just a short walk from Bear Creek another farm opened a haunted house last year.
Marc Marchini, Ms. Marchini's son and sales coordinator for J. Marchini Farms, said that visitors come to the pumpkin patch, walk down the street to his friend's property for a corn dog or other snacks, then go through the haunted house.
"Vista Ranch and Cellars is also in the vicinity, where people can enjoy local wine tastings," said Mr. Marchini. "Mom plans to open a second pumpkin patch this year, as well as a fruit and vegetable stand, for tour buses that stop. And she's planning evening events, like hay rides. It will ultimately be a great destination for visitors to enjoy this beautiful country and all it has to offer."
He added that one of his favorite pasttimes is to go to the pumpkin patch, pour a glass of wine and watch the stunning sunset -- not a bad wrap-up to a busy day in the produce business.