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Wednesday, October 21, 2009

GOOD GRIEF: PUMPKIN BUSINESS GETS CUT-THROAT

Posted By on Wed, Oct 21, 2009 at 2:20 PM

You expect some grisly images around Halloween, though they’re a surprise when you’re talking about pumpkins. Paul Walsh, owner of Doylestown’s Walsh Farms, says competition is getting fierce in the business of big orange fruit. For the past three years, he’s been losing boom-season business to big chain grocery stores, which sell pumpkins cheap.

“They’re cutting my throat,” says Walsh, taking a call at 11:30 on a Thursday morning, six hours into his work day. “They’re playing the whole game to get [customers] in the store. You’re not going to go to Acme and just buy one pumpkin.”

This year, Walsh has a great crop, but it isn’t going anywhere. So far, 2009 has been his worst season yet for sales. The economy remains down, and the weather isn’t cooperating — it snapped from warm and sunny to cold and wet. Families are buying pumpkins closer to town for less money.

In the past at Walsh’s farm, full-sized pumpkins cost six or seven bucks. Twenty minutes north in Akron, Giant Eagle sells large pumpkins for $5.99. Marc’s lets big ones go for $3.99. At Acme, any size pumpkin is $2.99. So Walsh has been forced to slash prices and make deals. He’s offering a big wheelbarrowful for $30. The cucurbita pepo aren’t the only draw at the farm, but they’re important. Harvest season, says Walsh, accounts for 80 percent of the farm’s annual revenue.

And this time of year, it’s not just a farm. On weekends, Walsh Farms hosts the equivalent of a small-scale country fair. Hundreds of families park cars in a field and stay one to three hours, working their way from attraction to attraction: a corn maze, inflatable jumping tents, a two-story slide, tractor rides, a petting zoo, hot chocolate and funnel cakes. Most of the activities are free. Proceeds from pumpkin sales used to offset the operating expenses. This year, the free stuff is getting most of the traffic.
“It’s not the people,” says Walsh. “It’s the economy. Both mom and dad have to work to make ends meet.”

So does Walsh, who’s on the go until 11 at night. He also landscapes and processes deer. The farm has been a family business for three generations. Walsh’s grandfather, Edward Walsh, bought the first 40 acres of the farm in 1936. Now it’s 360 acres, with an adjacent horse farm that the Cleveland Clinic uses for cancer-patient therapy. Walsh runs the farm with his mother, Shirley, and brother Jim. (His father, Robert, died two years ago.)

The family farm was Walsh’s career choice. After playing football at Chippewa High School, he says, he passed on a full scholarship to Clemson to attend Ohio State, where he received a bachelor’s degree in horticulture. While the Buckeyes hit the gridiron, Walsh spent fall weekends back home in the fields. When American farmers were hitting hard times, he stuck with it, believing farming had a future.

Now that he’s seen the future, he doesn’t care for it. Some local farms provide pumpkins to corporate grocery stores, which they sell at a loss. Walsh says he’s never been tempted to chase a piece of that action.

“I don’t believe in that, the middleman making more money than I am, making money off somebody’s back,” says Walsh. “Whatever I can’t sell directly to the public, I can’t grow.”

Walsh says the rides and the food and pumpkins all add up to pay the bills. And, he notes, a day on the farm is cheaper than high-priced hot dogs at a Browns Stadium.

“The world’s going to hell in a hand basket,” says Walsh. “There’s not a lot of affordable things a family can do together. I have one here.” — D.X. Ferris

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