Pumpkin farms far beyond gourds

WALNUT CREEK, Calif. — Selling pumpkins these days is about a lot more than selling pumpkins.

As folks rush to get ready for Halloween, pumpkin sellers do everything they can to attract buyers from their grocery store rivals, using everything from inflatable slides to petting zoos to corn fi

eld mazes to farm tours as lures.

David Osteen, owner of the Clayton Valley Pumpkin Farm and Christmas Tree Farm in Clayton, has been running his business for more than 30 years. When people come to his farm, there’s a slew of activities for customers.

“I’m not in the business of selling pumpkins; I’m in the business of selling an entire farm business,” Osteen said.

Because much of Osteen’s revenue comes from other areas, he is able to cut the profit margins on the pumpkins and, he says, stock better-quality pumpkins.

“It used to be that you could just put up a parking lot and people would make a fortune selling pumpkins, but now you have the grocery stores, and that (business model) has changed,” Osteen said. “The ones that only have a parking lot are being annihilated. They used to be all over the place, but they’ve just evaporated.”

These added “bells and whistles” are critical for success, said John Moore, owner of several pumpkin-sale locations in the San Francisco Bay Area.

“I try to make my locations almost feel like a carnival,” Moore said. “For Halloween, it’s all about having fun and giving people other things to do.”

And it’s the additional activities that differentiate the pumpkin business from the Christmas tree business model. Typically people who are looking for trees are in a hurry so they can get back to shopping, while those looking for pumpkins are willing to spend more time searching, Osteen said.

Before adding more activities, he said Christmas trees made up the bulk of the farm’s yearly revenue. But now “Halloween wins hands down,” Osteen said.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, the pumpkins themselves primarily come from just a handful of distributors in the San Joaquin Valley, so often the selections are similar from place to place.

While the grocery stores typically sell pumpkins for less, farms and lots can often find an edge in selection. Not only can they have non-traditional varieties, such as white pumpkins, but they can offer much larger ones as well.

“I like to carry the bigger stuff, because the stores don’t want their employees hurting their backs,” Moore said. “We don’t have to worry about that here.”

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