This time of year, commercial pumpkin "patches" sprout up overnight in asphalt parking lots, lighted with enough incandescent bulbs to power a cut-rate casino. Which got me thinking-- surely there must be real pumpkin patches in our paved-over county where living things grow in the earth? Where can we take the kidlets to pick their own pumpkins off the vine? There aren't very many, but here are some more interesting (and cheaper!) options than buying your jack o' lantern pumpkins at the supermarket. After the jump: My top four picks.
1. Westminster High School's Future Farmers of America Program
You've seen their pumpkin patch as you zip past on Interstate 405. That working farm belongs to the Westminster High School's Future Farmers of America program, which sells the harvest of pumpkins and fruit every Wednesday afternoon at the farmer's market at the Westminster Mall.
One day every year, the farm is open to the public during it's annual Fall Festival. This year, it's Saturday, Oct. 30 from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Newly hired faculty instructor Phillip Bentz says, "We'll have u-pick pumpkins for sale, face painting, dunk tank, pumpkin carving. The infamous 'goldfish booth' is coming back. I wasn't here for that last year, so you'll have to come to find out."
Co-instructor Dave Eusantos notes they grow six varieties of jack o' lantern pumpkins, including Fairytales and White Ghosts. "We have big ones and little ones for the young kids, ranging from $1 to $5," he says.
Festival admission is $5 per person, which includes burgers, dogs, chips and soda. The FFA students man the game booths and the petting zoo (which contains not just animals hired for the event, but the farm's own livestock). All proceeds from the event support the FFA.
During the rest of the year, Bentz says, "The public can still can support us by going to the Westminster Farmer's Market and buying our products. When persimmons ripen, we'll send those over, also avocados. I teach a floral class, so we'll be sending our pumpkin-themed flower designs there. Any time someone makes a contribution to the FFA, we're a tax-free organization so it's a tax benefit."
Westminster High School, 14325 Goldenwest St., Westminster. (714) 893-1381.
To get to the farm: enter from Goldenwest Street, turn onto Main Street into campus, and follow it past the football fields until you reach the farm.
2. Tanaka Farms, Irvine
Can't wait until Oct. 30 to pick pumpkins? Tanaka Farms in Irvine welcomes the public daily to pick pumpkins from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. with no admission fee.
The Tanaka family has been farming since 1941. "We've been doing the pumpkin patch for about 20 years now," says third-generation farmer Kenny Tanaka. "It first started off with guided tours around the fields, then developed into wagon rides, petting zoo, corn maze and pick your own pumpkins."
"These days, we'll drive you over to the field on the wagon, and then it's self guided after that. We have a 30-acre farm, and you'll see most of it on the wagon ride. We have baby goats, lambs, calves and a couple of llamas in our petting zoo. On weekends, we have games like pumpkin basketball shoots. We're giving ATV rides, and built a pedal-cart course out in the field."
Cost for individuals are $3 for the petting zoo, $5 for the wagon ride; kids age 2 and under get in free. U-pick pumpkins are sold by weight: A 6-to-8-pound pumpkin runs $3.25, and there's a sliding scale from there, up to a 30-pound pumpkin. School and youth groups can arrange for all-inclusive package rates.
The award-winning barbecue team from The Rub Company out of Buena Park will be smoking pulled pork and Santa Maria style tri-tip on Saturdays and Sundays. Tri-tip and pulled pork sandwiches cost $6, hot dogs $3 and BBQ corn $2.50.
Tanaka Farms, 5380 3/4 University Dr., Irvine (949) 653-2100; www.tanakafarms.com.
3. South Coast Farms, San Juan Capistrano
South Countians can head over to South Coast Farms in San Juan Capistrano on the last three weekends in October for a pumpkin "choosing," and craft activities for the youngsters. They do not grow jack o' lantern pumpkins, so you can't take the kids for a pick-from-the-field experience. They truck those in from elsewhere, and you choose from the pumpkins set up in their farm stand parking lot. Pumpkins cost 49 cents per pound.
They are one of the few local farmers growing organic pie pumpkins, which are sweeter. less fibrous, and better suited to baking than jack o' lanterns. General Manager Rebecca Noble says on those three Saturdays and Sundays, they offer free "old-fashioned activities, like butter churning, apple cider pressing and a beading table where the kids can make jewelry." They won't have the 'carnival-y' activities you'd see at an asphalt pumpkin patch.
South Coast Farms, 32701 Alipaz St., San Juan Capistrano (949) 661-9381; www.southcoastfarms.com.
4. Cal Poly Pomona's Annual Pumpkin Festival
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Another one-weekend event, and a big one at that, is Cal Poly Pomona's annual Pumpkin Festival and Insect Fair on Oct. 16 & 17. A pancake breakfast is offered only on Saturday from 8-11 a.m. There will be thousands of pumpkins in the field, as well as games, a petting zoo, horse rides. Bug out over the College of Agriculture's display of 500,000 or so insects.
Pumpkins cost $5 each (beach ball size) or 5 for $20 (Oct. 16 & 17 only). The Insect Fair costs $6 for adults; $4 for students and children 3-12 years; and is free for kids 2 and under. The pancake breakfast costs $5 for adults, $4 for kids 12 and under. Prices for individual activities such as horse rides and the petting zoo vary. Organized groups (schools, scouts, etc) can arrange for private u-pick trips the week prior to the festival.
Cal Poly Pomona Farm Store, 4102 S. University Drive, Pomona (909) 869-4906; www.csupomona.edu.