Pumpkin patches and apple cider are the furthest things from most people’s minds during the summer heat.
At Carleton Farms, that’s when Darren Carleton had already started thinking about October — and what he calls the “30-day show” at his parents’ farm.
Starting in late September, the farm overlooking the Snohomish River will turn into a fall wonderland with a corn maze, hay rides, a pumpkin cannon, zombie paintball and more.
The festivities first started 30 years ago, when Darren’s parents, Reid and Mary Carleton, opened a pumpkin patch on the front lawn of their house.
“People stopped to buy pumpkins; I couldn’t believe it,” Reid Carleton said. “Then we had a drive-thru pumpkin patch and people would get their cars stuck.”
Hayrides followed the pumpkin patches, and the first corn maze was designed in the shape of a John Deere tractor in 1992, Darren Carleton said.
His older brother, Shawn, has come up with all of the designs except for this year’s. Over the years, the mazes have been designed in the shape of everything from an ear of corn, to a pig in a barn, to a cow jumping over a pumpkin.
“We don’t do a labyrinth-style maze. We have curves, ovals, circles and different kinds of shapes,” Carleton said. “Ours are more animated.”
Around the first part of July, Carleton plants 4 to 5 acres of corn. The final maze design is drawn on graph paper; each row on the grid represents a row of corn. Using that grid for reference, the design is outlined on the field in white paint or lime chalk.
Two to three weeks later, when the corn is about 8 inches tall, he takes a small tractor with a tiller and cuts out the design.
“It seems to work well,” Carleton said.
“I’ve done it for so many years, I know how my brother designs — it’s never a circle, it’s always an oval.”
Carleton said they try to stick to an agricultural theme each year, but sometimes sports — especially the Seahawks — or other themes are featured.
“We look for things that would be of interest to people,” Carleton said.
The whole design takes about three days to cut out, although more complex designs can take longer. A recent maze that featured Seahawks helmets with numbers was extremely difficult to cut out, Carleton said.
Carleton waits until July to plant the corn — which is all animal feed — so it won’t grow beyond 10 feet tall and won’t develop ears of corn that kids can turn into projectiles.
A 5-acre maze takes a family about 45 minutes to go through, Carleton said. The farm hands out an aerial photo of the maze to use as a guide, although extra trails pop up toward the end of October as people make their own shortcuts through the corn.
Three years ago, Carleton added a trivia component to the maze to keep it interactive for families. Stations are posted throughout the maze with questions relating to that year’s theme; each correct answer is used to spell out a phrase.
Some bigger farms with larger mazes hire services to design and cut out their mazes, but Carleton believes in keeping it family-oriented. Before he came back to the farm full time five years ago, he would help his parents cut out the corn maze each summer.
“It’s still a family thing,” Carleton said. “This is a family farm.”
This will be the first year in the past 25 that Shawn Carleton didn’t design the maze. He has another job now, so a family friend stepped in.
Carleton Farm’s fall festivities have grown beyond their humble origins in the Carletons’ front yard. There is now a kids’ play area with a barn and corral, fire pits, a 150-foot zip line, a powerful pumpkin cannon that can shoot the orange squash a half-mile, and food stands offering burgers, kettle corn and pumpkin spice donuts.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a festival without a horde of zombies to defeat.
“We have a whole backstory about the zombies,” Carleton said. “A boatload of zombies floating down Ebey Slough landed at Carleton Farms and invaded all of our fields and killed all our workers.”
Visitors can climb on a wagon ride and shoot paintball guns at the zombies, who are typically teenagers in body armor — although Carleton has been known to take a turn in costume.
Wagon riders can also choose to be dropped off in a dark corner of the farm and make their way back to the barn down a dark trail — while being chased through the field by relentless zombies.
Carleton said his staff, many of them teenagers working their first job, do a phenomenal job each year. After about four months of work, he said the event pretty much runs itself.
He and his family love it when people visit their farm.
“It’s a huge honor to have people come,” Carleton said. “It allows them to have a connection to farming still and see how important it really is.”
If you go
Pumpkinland at Carleton Farms is at 630 Sunnyside Blvd. SE, Lake Stevens. The farm is open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily Sept. 30-Oct. 31. Pick a pumpkin and go through the corn maze. On Saturday and Sunday, other fall festivities include a pumpkin cannon, bucket train, zip lines and wagon rides. Pumpkins are priced by size.
Farm Frights start Oct. 6. Attractions include zombie paintball, a haunted swamp, zombie farm and a dark maze. Shows run Fridays and Saturdays, plus Halloween weekend.
Free parking. Pets are not allowed.
More at 425-334-2297 or www.carletonfarm.com.