Everybody under five feet tall rolls out of Joan's Farm in a wheelbarrow. Sure, the barrows are for hauling your 35-pound future jack-o'-lantern to your SUV, but what five-year-old can resist hopping in with the pumpkins?
"Oh, I think the car's over there," giggled one full-grown woman, her legs kicking from amid the family haul. Her husband gave me a semi-guilty look and rolled onward.
Every year, from October 1 through Halloween, Joan's Farm in Livermore runs a pumpkin patch. Joan Madsen and her husband, who have been cattle ranchers for sixty years, started a farm stand in 1985. In 1990, they planted pumpkins for the stand, and schoolteacher friends brought their classrooms for a look. The next year, they planted a few more pumpkins. "Soon we were taking over field after field," she says. The Madsens gradually turned the pumpkin patch into a Halloween theme park.
On a mid-October Saturday, the place is like Studio 54 for the preliterate set. Small children are everywhere -- getting their faces painted, tugging their parents toward the blacksmith's stand and Wild West covered wagon, and ricocheting off the walls of the bouncy house. They're rumbling around the farm on a tractor-pulled tour, and swarming the ponies and goats at the petting zoo.
And, of course, the young'uns are also scrambling around the fields in search of that Great Pumpkin. Joan's come in every size, from miniature, scalloped Munchkins to molten-looking Mammoths, far heftier than your average five-year-old. Plus there are bins of bottle gourds, blue kuris, white pumpkins, and turban squash. Haul your pumpkin to the row of wooden cutouts by the money-taker and read off the price on the cutout nearest its size. It'll probably cost you less than a similar size at Safeway.
We live in the jack-o'-lantern state, second only to Illinois in pumpkin production. According to the UC Davis Vegetable Information and Research Center, 90 percent of California pumpkins are destined for the Halloween market. Joan grows many of them herself on the farm, but since the Madsens are still primarily cattle ranchers, they contract out to farmers in the Central Valley to keep up with demand.
Joan's Farm is open to the public every day from 9:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. It's located at 4351 Mines Road in Livermore. For tour reservations call 925-447-0794. Admission is free, but there's a small fee for attractions like the bouncy house and the corn maze. The wheelbarrow ride, however, costs nothing but your pride.
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