"I like seeing kids have a good time," says Andrew Lefebre, owner of Berry-Land in Abrams. "This brings me back to when I was a kid and my dad would chase me around bales of hay."
Bales of hay, now built into a giant fort, are one of the attractions that Lefebre has at the growing business. With each year, the business that was started by his grandfather in 1980 has expanded. There are seasons for strawberries, rhubarb and asparagus.
But if you ask parents and children, the best part of the year is pumpkin season, and the haunted ride to the pumpkin patch. The ride is just part of the action that also includes a munchkin maze, fall displays, painted pumpkins, a climbing wall, an obstacle course, scarecrows, crafts, and a corn box.
"Every year we brainstorm and put together ideas for activities," Lefebre said. "The most popular event is the haunted hayride. We spend a lot of time thinking about scenes to put on the trail, and everything is geared toward children. The ride takes the kids to the pumpkin patch where they pick out a pumpkin."
And more than 1,000 children will do just that. Not only do hundreds of families visit, Lefebre also promotes BerryLand to schools.
By the time the pumpkin patch opens, the schedule is full. Buses pull up throughout the day, children are split into groups, and he hops on the wagon to lead the tour. En route, he tells the young audience about pumpkins — how they grow and how to handle them.
By adding an educational aspect, he hopes to pass on his passion not only for pumpkins, but also for farming. Despite the challenges of operating a seasonal business and being dependent on the weather, Lefebre says continuing to farm honors what his grandfather and parents started.
"When you put in the hard work and see the positive results, and you get to deal with the dirt and work with the earth, it grounds you," he added. "Everything we sell, we grow."
This year, with the wet weather, the demand for produce and pumpkins has exceeded the supply.
"Basically, we are slaves to the weather," he said. "It determines if we can get out in the field to harvest. A lot of our pumpkin plants are still underwater. We are playing the game of the weather, and it’s like gambling."
Although that has meant smaller pumpkins this year, it hasn’t affected the number of customers. Lefebre says he builds the BerryLand brand with a detailed marketing plan that includes Facebook, Instagram, newspaper ads and word of mouth. Experience has shown him that the best way to grow a business is to be accommodating, kind and helpful to everyone so they come back.
It is a philosophy shared by the family members and friends who work with him each year. His son, now 13, supports the family business by doing chores and being one of the characters encountered on the hayride. His 8-year-old daughter is just starting to get involved.
"My parents say they’re retired, but they also help out all of the time," Lefebre said. "I don’t know if they do it because they love the farm or because they love me."
Without this help, it would be difficult to make a profit. Especially since income is derived during the summer and fall, Lefebre works and plans all year, but also has a part-time job as a postman. His wife works full time. Those jobs mean financial security, and importantly, health insurance. "As an entrepreneur, I can’t think of another issue bigger than the cost of health insurance," he said.
With those challenges taken care of, he is able to enjoy the final days of the season and begin preparing for next year.
"It will be a quick tear down of tents and displays," Lefebre said. "I’ll take a few days to get everything stored away, and then, it’s time to start ordering seeds for next year. There may be other pumpkin patches, but we want to do things right so people come back for the farm experience, come for the nice people and come for the family time."
Tina Dettman-Bielefeldt is co-owner of DB Commercial Real Estate in Green Bay and past district director for SCORE, Wisconsin.