Larry Peter turned a way to survive in the dairy business into a destination for hands-on family fun and agriculture education
By Taylor Pires
Fall is the beginning of leaves changing color, Sundays spent cheering on your favorite football team and a celebration of harvest. For Larry Peter, fall is the season of 6,000 children running around his farm among acres of pumpkins, wrestling potatoes from the ground and enjoying the atmosphere of an everyday dairy.
Larry was trying to live out his father’s dream when he started milking cows in 1987. The Great Peter Pumpkin Patch was inspired by a drive to stay in the dairy business. “I couldn’t make it milking cows so I grew potatoes. I started doing the farmers’ markets every weekend selling them. From the farmers’ markets and the potatoes I thought, ‘how can I get the people to come out to the ranch instead?’” Larry said. After some trial and error, Larry established a pumpkin patch in 1994 as a way to draw people to his farm. For 20 years he has been building upon his farm focused, educational pumpkin patch.
Now that Larry is well-established in the dairy business with his 400 cow organic Jersey herd and Petaluma Creamery operations, the pumpkin patch has taken on a different meaning. It is less of a way to diversify his farm and more of an avenue to expose the next generation to agriculture.
“Monday through Friday from about 9 to 1, this place is all children,” Larry said. The field trips at the Great Peter Pumpkin Patch have quite the following. Students from Oakland, San Francisco, Marin and Sonoma Counties milk a cow, pick a pumpkin and dig for potatoes in a hands-on approach to learning where their food comes from.
Larry has enlisted the help of his neighbors, friends and family to provide a full-fledged farm experience for the community. Grace and Molly Wells, also known as Farmer Grace and Farmer Molly, have been volunteering at the pumpkin patch for over a decade. Grace is one of the original volunteers, sharing her knowledge with school children and their families for 18 years, and her niece Molly has joined her in doing so for the past 12 years.
Grace is a retired Kindergarten teacher that uses her experience and humor to help the students understand agriculture in their own terms. “Our activities are farm oriented. Our talk is all about agriculture and the importance of keeping agriculture here into the future. We always tell the kids, ‘you are the future of farming in this country; you are the future.’ We hope to get somebody enthused,” Grace said.
Larry is adamant about keeping the pumpkin patch a true farm experience free from commercial attractions. “We want the next generation to see where our food comes from. We want them to know where we come from and what we do,” Larry said.
Volunteers like Grace and Molly talk to the children about the history of pumpkins and potatoes, the importance of bees, the life cycle of a pumpkin, the science behind cheese making, sustainability efforts and general farm life. The field trips are a perfect opportunity to share agriculture with students from all backgrounds, but especially to those from the city who have little exposure to farming.
“A lot of them are surprised because of the process behind what appears in the grocery store. They are young enough that they don’t stop and think about it. They go to the grocery store and there it is. We explain to them that their food was somewhere else first. The dairy is where the milk starts,” Grace said.
Grace added that teachers play a role in the students’ experience on the farm. Some teachers will prep their classes with background knowledge while others let the farm speak for itself. “We get kids from Oakland and San Francisco and when arrive they’re a blank canvas. When they come out to the farm it’s like an eye-opening revelation. I think the teachers do that on purpose. They want it to be a miracle for the kids,” Grace said.
Larry, Grace and Molly agree that one of their favorite parts about the pumpkin patch is the kids. “I love to see the excitement of little kids, learning something for the next generation,” Larry said. Grace shared multiple stories about the students that she has had the pleasure of teaching for the past 18 years, with most proving the adage that “kids say the darndest things.”
“One of the best parts of volunteering is the kids we get from the city; they just don’t have a clue when they get here. And while I’m not laughing at them, these little bits of humor brighten up the whole thing. One little girl got off the bus and there was a cow tethered there to be milked. She said, ‘Do we get to ride that big horse today?’” Grace said with a chuckle.
The volunteers also see families enjoying the pumpkin patch, which is something they treasure in addition to the relationships they form with the students. “Families can come out from all different economic backgrounds and enjoy the experience. They can learn about Sonoma County agriculture and learn about the farm. That’s probably what Larry is most proud of,” Molly said.
It is also important to Larry that all of the activities are free and always will be. Families can park, hop on a wagon ride, sample cheese, listen to live music, wade in a pool of corn kernels, visit the petting zoo and enjoy the atmosphere of the farm at no cost. The public is only charged for pumpkins, potatoes, ice cream and refreshments.
The motivation behind The Great Peter Pumpkin Patch is family. Larry saw how hard his parents worked for what they had. He values where he came from and how difficult it is to be a farmer. The pumpkin patch began as a way to survive in agriculture and preserve Larry’s family ties to farming. Now, it is a way for other families to experience first-hand the importance of agriculture and ensure its existence for their own children. Providing families with the opportunity to immerse themselves in the farm, whether it’s watching a calf being born or the satisfaction of picking a pumpkin off the vine, brings Larry happiness. “The best joy I get out of this is seeing people laugh and be happy, and seeing people thanking us for doing this every year,” Larry said.
Larry’s desire to provide visitors from both near and far with a true farming experience is evident. “He really does care about the community, the farm community, and teaching young people about sustainable agriculture. It’s a passion of his. When you meet him and he talks to you about his dreams and hopes for Sonoma County, it’s pretty contagious,” Molly said.