Tim Perilloux knows better than most the challenges of producing pumpkins in the Deep South. The LaPlace, La., grower, who shared his experiences with other growers at the recent Deep South Fruit and Vegetable Growers Conference and Trade Show in Biloxi, Miss., says 2002 dealt him a multitude of problems.
The only thing worse than a pumpkin in November, says Perilloux, is a group of school children visiting a pumpkin patch in mid-October only to find that weather or bugs have beaten them to their Halloween treats. He dealt with both scenarios in 2002.
Weather conditions in Louisiana were not kind to Perilloux's pumpkin crop in 2002. “We plant Creole pumpkins, and we lost much of our crop. The rain meant I couldn't spray for insects or diseases on time. It also meant that the pumpkins were going to rot anyway, whether I treated with an insecticide or not,” he says.
To compensate, he imported pumpkins into his empty fields from New Mexico. “Once you take appointments, you'd better have pumpkins in the field before the children get there. No matter where or how you get them, you must have pumpkins, even you have to truck them in to your farm. Don't lie to people about what you are doing — tell them what's happening, and they'll understand.”
Perilloux has planted pumpkins for 17 years, “Since before the phrase ‘agrotourism’ was even around,” he says. “You don't even need to have a pumpkin patch, you could have a turnip or cabbage farm. Teachers are looking for places to take school children on field trips, and the children want to pick something and take it home with them.”
“We charge $3 per person and have handled up to 1,400 children in about three hours. We give the children a hay ride and their choice of any pumpkin in our 20-acre field. I don't care how big a pumpkin they pick. There are too many people and too many pumpkins to worry about pumpkin sizes or weights.”
Riding the wagons and washing pumpkins in a trough is all part of the fun for kids — picking the pumpkins is secondary, he says. His “automatic pumpkin washing system” consists of water-filled troughs with concrete bottoms where the children dip their pumpkins and scrub them with brushes. The pumpkins then drip-dry for about three minutes.
It's common on a busy morning, says Perilloux, to have 30 school buses parked in his back yard and 100 cars in his front yard. His pumpkin patch is open seven days a week, with about one-half hour allocated per school group.
“To maximize your profits, pick a crop that grows well in your area. I have to have a backup system because pumpkins don't always grow well in South Louisiana.”
Perilloux also advises that the farm be located within traveling distance of a populated area. He is situated about halfway between New Orleans and Baton Rouge.
“You'll also need someone to park cars, otherwise you'll have the biggest mess you've ever seen. In addition, it's good to have a picnic area for visitors, because they usually need to stay there and eat their brown-bag lunches.”
Perilloux's best advertisement is the teachers and children who visit his farm. “You have to have patience for that word-of-mouth to build. But other than that, we've never advertised our business.”
He has four pumpkin-carrying wagons and seven people-carrying wagons, each with about 400 square feet of area. The sides are 30 inches tall for the children's safety.
“The sides come up above their waists so they don't fall out. The adults, however, need to find something to hold on to so they won't fall out. We haven't had one accident in 17 years.”
Perilloux's operation requires few employees — only him, his wife, his dad and three other trailer drivers. “We also have boys who unload the trucks of pumpkins when I have to buy them, which is more often than I'd like to admit. Buying pumpkins cuts deeply into your profits, but I hate to consider raising prices.”
Perilloux's wife makes painted pumpkin necklaces, which she sells at the farm for $7 to $10. The necklaces, he says, can't rot.