Sonoma County pumpkin growers are not only dirt farmers but entertainment impresarios who each October stage mini-fairs amid fields of plenty for city folks seeking a farm experience.
After all, if you just want a plain old pumpkin there are bins full of them at supermarkets. But for those who want to wander a corn maze, scare yourself silly in a haunted dungeon or scout a field to find the perfect pumpkin, the farm is the place to go for outdoor fun and a genuine adventure. And farmers are ready and willing to oblige.
Two of the best are the Groverman family’s Petaluma Pumpkin Patch and Amazing Corn Maze along Highway 101 in Petaluma and Muelrath Pumpkins, operated by Bob and Audrey Muelrath, on Walker Avenue in southwest Santa Rosa. Both offer all kinds of attractions such as hay rides or farm animals, to enhance the hunt for pumpkins.
The Groverman and Muelrath families, who love what they do, are leaders in the agritourism movement, which brings city folks to farms for an agricultural experience. Both families are longtime, active members of Sonoma County Farm Bureau.
“It’s letting people have fun at what could be called a fall mini-fair where the theme is harvest and Halloween,” said Jim Groverman, who with his wife Cindy and daughter, Kimberly, 11, runs the Petaluma Pumpkin Patch and Amazing Corn Maze. Groverman started the pumpkin patch in 1992, long before the word “agritourism” became a topic at workshops exploring ways to survive in the farming game.
“So many families are so removed from farms these days this is their chance to kick in the dirt and unplug from their electronics,” said Bob Muelrath, who loves the creative aspect of staging his ranch for fall fun.
Agritourism became even more popular last year during the height of the pandemic when people were anxious to get out and explore the farms and landscape around them. Farm Bureau’s executive director Tawny Tesconi assisted farmers by working with health department officials to develop protocols that would allow the farms to open for business. Muelrath and Groverman said they had one of their best years ever in 2020. They expect their season to be gangbusters again this year.
“Everyone wanted to get outside, they were tired of being penned up inside,” said Groverman. “We expect another good year this season.”
When he started out, Groverman called what he was doing “Agro-Tainment” because he knew it went way beyond farming. But he also knew it was the way to survive in an agricultural region like the North Bay.
Groverman’s venture has grown to be Sonoma County’s largest roadside attraction each October, drawing thousands of people and getting the attention of traffic-stopping gawkers along the freeway. After nearly three decades it’s not only become a Highway 101 landmark but a generational tradition for families.
“There have been several times when customers come up to tell me their parents brought them to the Pumpkin Patch when they were kids and now, they are bringing their kids. I’m glad I’ve created something that people continue to come back to enjoy year after year,” said Groverman, 58, a tall, lanky guy who on weekends can be seen atop his quarter horse overseeing the crowds.
Bob and Audrey Muelrath of Muelrath Pumpkins also take great delight in the enjoyment and pleasure they provide the droves of kids and adults who come in October for homegrown pumpkins and a whole lot more. The Muelraths offer hay rides, a haunted dungeon and mini-corn maze for toddlers. There’s a giant slingshot to catapult a pumpkin – cannon ball style – through the air.
“I think we have as much fun as the kids and their parents,” said Bob Muelrath, 78, a former dairy rancher who started growing pumpkins 25 years ago. He opened the pumpkin patch to visitors 20 years ago and has been adding props and attractions ever since. He loves to repurpose stuff scavenged at junkyards and garage sales into the landscape of the visitor’s area on the ranch that his parents, the later Peter and Alice Muelrath, purchased in the 1940’s.
When the farm opens, the Muelraths are there greeting and guiding visitors and handling sales of the pumpkins, squash and corn stalks grown on 15 acres at the ranch. Muelrath rotates growing fields every two years, always leaving some part of the ranch fallow to build up soil tilth and fertility while reducing disease and insects.
Audrey Muelrath, known for her home arts skills, offers her perfect pickles, using her mother’s recipe to make what she calls “Society Chips.” This year she put up 350 jars of pickles as well as pickled beets to sell at the farm.
In addition to the public pumpkin patch, Bob Muelrath grows and delivers pumpkins – 20 different varieties – to stores and retail outlets throughout Sonoma County and the Bay Area. He is assisted by longtime ranch foreman Cesar Perez who lives on the property and is vital to the farming operation’s success.
Down in Petaluma, Groverman is proud of the popular attraction he’s built over the last 29 years. But he admits he is a farmer a heart. A man of few words, Groverman prefers working his cattle and driving a tractor to being the ring master at an ag-themed mini-fair. But in true farmer fashion the rancher has rolled up his sleeves to do what he has to do stay in agriculture.
“I like growing the best. That’s the most rewarding part of what I do in this business,” said Groverman, a fourth generation Sonoma County farmer. He graduated from Petaluma High School, studied at SRJC and earned a dairy science degree at Cal Poly.
As a relative of the Petersen farming clan, Groverman grew up watching busloads of kids arrive on the family ranch on Petersen Road in Sebastopol to pick pumpkins grown by his grandmother’s brothers Oscar, Newton, Clarence and John Petersen. He said his grandmother Ida, an amazing gardener, taught and inspired him to coax crops from the soil.
It seems Groverman’s urge to plant, grow and harvest is in the DNA passed down by his agricultural ancestors. That gene is likely to have passed to Groverman’s daughter Kimberly too, who is passionate about agriculture, raising poultry and livestock, which she displays at the pumpkin patch. She said when she grows up she would like to take over the family pumpkin farm for future generations.
Jim Groverman is the second of four children of retired veterinarian Fred Groverman, and the late Pat Groverman, who for many years was a fixture at her son’s pumpkin patch and corn maze. Pat died in 2012.
Jim and Cindy Groverman said Pat Groverman, a longtime 4-H and community leader, was the visionary for the pumpkin patch and corn maze, always pushing them to make it a fun agricultural experience for families. In that spirit, they continue to add more experiences like the corn kernel sandbox for toddlers.
Groverman said his business really took off in 1996 when he planted and created the corn maze. The corn maze is Groverman’s evolving horticultural masterpiece, a 4.5 acre stretch of living art created from the planting of more than 150,000 corn seeds. Every year he designs a maze that is challenging but not impossible or defeating. It’s all done in his head – with no blueprint or map – when the corn stalks are a month old.
“It’s a true maze. There is only one way in and one way out,” said Groverman. “There is no set pattern. I just wing it. That’s what keeps it interesting and challenging. People keep coming back because it’s different every year.”
On Friday and Saturday nights the farm is open until 10 p.m., allowing older kids and adults to experience the maze under the stars. There are light towers so they are not in total darkness.
The maze in Petaluma has garnered international attention. An aerial photograph of the maze appeared in newspapers around the world including a newspaper in Germany where many of Groverman’s ancestors came from more than a century ago.
As the pumpkin season opens, the Groverman and Muelrath families brace themselves for a long haul with no days off. Once Halloween is over, they take a deep breath and start planning how to make next year even better.
“It really is rewarding to see so many people enjoying themselves and that’s what keeps us going. Once we are done with the pumpkin season, Audrey starts decorating for Christmas,” said Muelrath. “It doesn’t end.”