There was a time when the average number of weekend visitors to Todd and Carrie Nelson’s modest, self-run pumpkin patch west of Grand Forks was 50. “Now, we have people that came as kids and are bringing their own kids,” Todd says. “What used to be 50 for an average weekend is now in the thousands.”
Todd, the lifelong farmer, and Carrie, the recently retired elementary teacher, have transformed the area just two miles west of the original Nelson homestead farm—and their lives—with the build-up, build-out and continuous operation of a place that features corn cannons, pumpkin blasters, pork-chops-on-a-stick, old school farm buildings and machinery, traditional hay rides and an atmosphere that the Nelson’s say draw out a similar response from young kids to young adults to old timers. “Most people love being here,” Carrie says. “No matter how old they are, they all say thanks to us for doing this.”
Since Carrie first started growing a pumpkin patch at her husband’s farm east of the Grand Forks Air Force Base to bring her students to, everything has grown. Todd has joined in the business of running the Nelson Pumpkin Patch after a few years of resisting. The Nelson’s have created their own family, all of whom help with or have taken a financial stake in the business of the patch. “At the beginning of all of this people thought I was crazy,” Carrie says. Todd’s Grandpa, who raised him and operated the farm prior to Todd, wasn’t keen on the changes to the farm at first. But if he could see it now.
“They would be impressed today,” Todd says of his grandparents. “They would have liked to see how the grain bins are being used. In his day, they put grain in anything they could. Now there is people going into them. They would have liked that and they would have liked visiting with all the people.”
There were clear signs along the way that the idea to unite people around pumpkins and fall attractions was worth pursuing. In the early days, people would stop by the farm and pick out pumpkins and leave money in a container. Teachers from schools inside and outside the region continually asked Carrie if they could visit with their students.
People just kept coming and coming. When they added a hayride through a set of trees near their main patch, cars would be waiting for long periods, backed up a mile past the entrance for a chance to get a ride. Today, they’re open for most of the fall, employ roughly 20 on the weekends, take large groups by appointment during the week and on any given day could be hosting a tour bus from somewhere hoping to experience the smells of fall leaves, the steam from a hot chocolate and the feel of a smooth pumpkin against their hands after a ride behind a tractor, no matter their age.
“All I’ve ever known is the farm,” Todd says. When people started, then continued to come in larger and larger numbers, he began to understand the opportunity and fun he and his wife could have. In the past five years of operation, the patch and its offerings have expanded “massively,” they say.
To keep the hay-ride enthusiasts happy while they wait, the husband-wife team has learned what it takes to keep people energized and interested in attending a patch after they get their pumpkins or while they wait. “Anything you can ride on, or shoot, people like,” Carrie says with a laugh.
In addition to pumpkin blasters, corn cannons and other impressive yard-type games, the Nelsons have added a haunted village and path to walk through, a petting zoo, a kid-friendly grainery bar and several other features.
“We always come up with new things to add,” Todd says. “Every year it is the same. We ask, what can we add?”
“My mind is always going,” Carrie adds. The team has acquired pumpkin patch equipment from equipment suppliers in Louisiana. They have added pumpkin varieties from Missouri. Todd starts pumpkins from seed in winter to grow the massive versions. After starting with a half-acre patch and spreading seed by hand, they now used a custom seeder on more than 10-acres. With some in-house engineering ingenuity, they moved two old wooden grainery cars onto their lot to form their haunted house. A former grain truck has been refurbished for display. To house pumpkins, they’ve built two massive storage sheds. There is no game, attraction or pumpkin patch-ish item that the Nelsons won’t consider for the betterment of the experience.
Carrie has always worked to maintain the quaint and natural feel of the place, opting when possible to upcycle items from the farm into attractions or on-site buildings. They both stress about the operations and feel pressure to maintain what has become an annual attraction for the region. But, they view their agri-business venture as a part of who they are now. Carrie’s kids like to add to the operation and even have nicknames for their mother that denote her role at the patch. For a long time, Carrie’s mom made pumpkin bars for every Saturday at the patch. On some Saturday nights during the season, they are running to Sam’s Club or scrambling to get things ready for the next day. Not all of the attractions work out, and, the weather is always a crucial component of the success or comfort level of any given day.
Both Todd and Carrie recognize that they are now the pumpkin people. They don’t expect to be referred to as simply the Nelsons. In her first year of retirement from teaching this year, Carrie is looking forward to a full winter to prepare for next year. She’s even looking to add new features and decorations for display or sale at the patch. “There is just so much we can still do,” she says.
Todd, who farms with one of his sons when he’s not driving the hayride tractor or moving pumpkins or fixing the corn cannon or helping in some other way at the patch, is elated and inspired by how his wife’s vision has turned out. “I can’t imagine,” he says, “doing anything else.” G
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PHOTOS BY: SUSTAD PHOTOGRAPHY
From Issue 4, 2018