Pumpkin patch
Family and friends pick out pumpkins during the 2019 Pumpkin Fest in Valparaiso, Nebraska. Photo courtesy of Alyson Benes.

When life gives you lemons, you make lemonade. When some families in Nebraska are given fields, they grow a pumpkin patch. 

A couple of families in southeast Nebraska turned additional acres of farmland into a fall wonderland giving out pumpkins to family, friends and visitors. The families prepare for months and have continued to learn over the years how to maintain a pumpkin patch. 

“We didn’t think it would get this big,” said Alyson Benes, who grows a patch each year with her husband Leo Benes as well as other crops.

Located northwest of Valparaiso, Benes and her husband expanded their patch from half an acre to a full acre since 2015, growing pumpkins and gourds. 

Benes’ family and friends gather each year at the patch for a free, day-long Pumpkin Fest event to pick their own pumpkins, eat a prime rib meal and go on a hayrack ride.

“People just keep coming back,” Leo Benes said. 

Over the years, around 200 people attend the annual Pumpkin Fest, according to Benes. She said the family event has spread through family members inviting friends and strangers driving by the event to stop and ask if it is open to the public. 

“It’s just a small world,” Benes said.

Alyson Benes said it can be challenging to prepare for the event each year by estimating how much food and pumpkins to have ready. This year, attendance was down, due to COVID-19. It continues to be a learning experience, according to Benes. 

The Benes family is not the only successful pumpkin patch in the southeast Nebraska area. Just 30 miles east, Jamaree Maack and her family have prepared their pumpkin patch near Ashland each year since 2014 for visitors. 

“It’s a side project,” Maack said. 

In addition to full-time jobs and their children’s school and extracurriculars, the Maack family welcomes visitors to come and find pumpkins to purchase and take home. Their hours to come and pick pumpkins are listed on their Facebook page. 

The Maack family patch has also grown each year with increased attendance from family, friends and visitors with the help of Facebook and signs along Highway 56 near the Wildlife Safari Park to bring families in to pick pumpkins. 

“You can just come out for a little while, spend a little time together, get some pictures and it doesn’t cost a lot,” Maack said.

Nebraska weather has created challenges for both families.

“It’s certainly all the same unpredictable things that go with farming that go with this as well,” Maack said.

If the weather is too dry, not as many pumpkins grow. A week of rain in September saved the Maack’s patch this year. 

The Benes’ said they ended this year with a good crop, but each year is different.

“Nebraska [weather] is the hardest to prepare for,” Benes said.

Both patches are now wrapping up for the year and beginning preparation for fall 2021, which includes buying seeds and planting next summer. 

“Now we’ve kind of learned that it’s hard and it’s hot and it stinks,” Maack said. “But you do it because, in October, it pays off.”