Pumpkins, ponies and pillow jumps are just a few of the adventures that people can enjoy at Vala’s Pumpkin Patch. This family farm, located in Gretna, Neb., hosts one of the largest fall attractions in the country.
The farm is owned and operated by Tim and Jan Vala, who started the business 28 years ago. “I always kind of wanted to start my own business of some sort, because I thought it would be kind of neat, and I think a lot of people do. I had a hard time finding a full-time job, and I had an education certificate, but couldn’t find a teaching job at the time,” he said.
He continued, “I starting thinking about creating my own job, or starting my own business. I thought, well what do I like to do? Because I thought if you are doing your own business, you will probably be putting in a lot of hours, so hopefully it’s something you like to do.”
One thing that Vala enjoyed was gardening. “I liked gardening. My dad always had a garden where I grew up, and I used to help him with that. We had a big garden in the back yard with a big patch of strawberries. One day, I took the strawberries to work and everyone raved at how great they were,” he said.
He added, “It made me think about strawberries, and you-pick strawberries was an up and coming thing and a lot of people liked that.”
This gave him the idea of owning a you-pick strawberry patch, where people could come to the farm and pick their own strawberries. “What was attractive was you could do it on small acreages. It is a high value crop,” Vala said.
So he began looking for land, and settled on the property in Gretna where the farm still resides. “I found a farmer who didn’t want to retire all the way, but wanted to cut back. So he thought I was just this goofy kid who was going to try farming, and didn’t know anything about it, but he gave me a shot. I was able to rent with the option to buy for a few years. We put in six acres of strawberries the first year, and about 10 acres of vegetables. The strawberries were pretty weedy, and that first year was pretty tough because I really didn’t know what I was doing that much, but we survived,” he said.
He also grew a small patch of pumpkins that year. “I put them all in my pickup, and on the weekends I went into town to sell them, and sold them pretty quickly. The next year, I made a mistake and I planted too many pumpkins, and I had a great crop. We did have you-pick strawberries, so we had a history of having people on the farm. It was almost kind of a last minute decision. I thought maybe customers would come out and pick pumpkins too,” Vala stated.
His hunch was correct. That year, he was able to get all of his pumpkins picked as well, and that’s when the business changed.
“The thing that was kind of neat is the customers really seemed to enjoy it, especially when you compare it to strawberries. With strawberries, it was always like we had three to four days where things were ripe, and then they were over-ripe. The time spent at peak production was so small it was hard to get people to come right at the right time. You didn’t know ahead of time when that right time would be,” he said.
Pumpkins, however, have a much longer time period where they are ripe, and Vala realized how much this could help him. “With the fall, it was more of a family thing, and it was easier to market and advertise. The pumpkins are ready the whole month of October. That’s why we started focusing on pumpkins,” he stated.
Today, the farm looks a little different than it did when it was started. Originally the farm was just 35 acres, and today they own 315 acres. They have expanded from the pumpkin patch, and now their facility showcases agro-tourism at its best.
“We have expanded from where the original homestead was, and have added on from there. Some of the barns were built, and some of them were brought in from neighboring farms,” he said.
He continued, “If it looks like a traditional farm building, it was probably one that we moved in from around here. We have saved some of the neighboring farmsteads, with barns that would have probably been torn down. It’s nice we can preserve some of that history.”
However, their reasons for expansion were not just for the business. “Omaha is kind of coming out towards us, so we are trying to buy the adjoining farm land so we can keep that agricultural experience. We would really like to see this be here for years to come,” Vala said.
The farm is only open 40 days of the year, and sees roughly 200,000 people during that time period. “We really focus on what we are doing, and try to do a good job at what we are doing. It’s not so much how long you are open, but what you do when you are open,” he said.
The farm is open during the last week of September, and the entire month of October each year. “There is something special about October and the fall harvest, and the pumpkins. I think even with the limited time we are open, it makes it a special place. People really look forward to coming out. Money is not everything, and we like the quality of life out here,” Vala stated.
The rest of the year, the family maintains the facility, and begins planning for the next year. “I like the seasonality of it. If you ever get bored with something, it seems like you are off to another thing. You look forward to getting open, but then towards the end you are tired and ready to be done. The month before we open and the month we are open are very busy. When November 1 comes around, it’s kind of nice to take a break. The winter months it’s fun to plan, and then in the spring I love to get out there and plant the crops,” he said.
The farm is over 100 years old, and the family tries to educate the public about agriculture through signage and attractions on the farm. “It’s good for the community to have a place where you can bring families out. So many kids anymore don’t have the chance to come out to a real farm, they don’t get to run around and sit on hay bales, so this is a really neat experience for them,” Vala said. ❖