If You Plant It, They Will Come

How pumpkins turned this quiet family farm into a can’t-miss destination.

Parrish Pumpkin patch in Lunenburg county, Virginia.

Their plans were modest. A few pumpkins, a small corn maze, a tent in the front yard. But you know how it is with these things. One year you’re throwing a few gourd seeds in the ground and, next thing you know, you’ve got a movie theater in your grain silo, thousands of pumpkins dotting seventeen acres, and 1,000 people wandering through your cornfield on average October weekend.

And what the heck—even in the middle of a pandemic, you open a holiday market because you heard about the annual Amish Christmas Market and tree auction in Lancaster, Pennsylvania and thought, Why not? Parrish Trucking Company, another longtime family enterprise, hauls tobacco in and out of Lancaster several times a week. So it only makes sense to load a transfer truck with trees for the trip back home.

Parrish Pumpkin patch in Lunenburg county, Virginia.

When Jeff and Liz Parrish took their first tentative steps toward opening their 58-acre Lunenburg County farm to the public in 2009, the high school sweethearts were just looking to create the kind of pumpkin patch magic they’d enjoyed when their own children—daughter Vayda and sons Eli and Cary—were young. Back then, at the only nearby patch, they’d leave cash for their pumpkins in an honor box. “We thought we could probably pull that off here on our farm,” says Liz. “So we decided to give it a go.”

Back then, the Parrishes couldn’t have imagined how the seeds of their idea would grow. Parrish Pumpkin Patch & Corn Maze, now a thriving offshoot of their Parrish View Farms, is well on its way to becoming a year-round event venue.

“We started with the pumpkins, and the events just grew up around them,” says Liz.

The venture remains a family affair, built on the hustle, the hard work, and the homegrown ingenuity of three generations of Parrishes.

Some pumpkin farms feel like Old MacDonald suffer a hostile takeover from Chuck E. Cheese. Here, the attractions are simple and inviting.

Destination: Dundas

Parrish Pumpkin patch in Lunenburg county, Virginia.

It’s midmorning on a blue-sky autumn day—Virginia’s reward for surviving summer—and visitors are already making their way to the Parrish Pumpkin Patch. Parrish View Farms stands about 15 miles from Blackstone (to the north), and South Hill (to the south); just past the intersection of routes 137 and 603. Hang a right on a gravel drive and park on the grassy verge.

Samantha and Ryan Lafoon, with their children, Carter and Aubreigh, are gathered around a picnic table in the pine-pole barn. Bathed in sunlight, it was made with wood sourced from a nearby property and added to the farm’s attractions in 2019. There’s a giant prop pumpkin on the back wall (perfect for photo ops), hanging wooden porch swings decorated with carved jack o’ lantern images (from a Pennsylvania Mennonite’s home-based woodshop), and stew pots filled with brightly colored chrysanthemums.

The Lafoons live about 20 minutes away in South Hill, not far from the North Carolina border. They’ve been coming here every year since Aubreigh, now in sixth grade, was a preschooler. This year, they’ve already hit the pumpkin patch three times. They’re such loyal regulars that they’ve even been given two kittens from the farm named Parrish (gray) and Pumpkin (orange). Carter likes the cows and the corn maze and the tractor rides. Ryan likes the pumpkins. Samantha enjoys the porch swings. And Aubreigh? “My favorite part is everything.”

Parrish Pumpkin patch in Lunenburg county, Virginia.

By family, for family

Unlike some pumpkin patch operations, which can feel like Old MacDonald suffered a hostile takeover from Chuck E. Cheese, Parrish Pumpkin Patch feels like an authentic family farm, because it is. The Parrishes also grow feed-corn, sunflowers, soybeans, and wheat for straw. Their home, where four generations of Parrishes have lived, sits smack in the middle of operations. Their dogs, Lolly and Buford, loll in the grass.

Parrish Pumpkin patch in Lunenburg county, Virginia.

The attractions here are simple and inviting: the corn maze, the hay-wagon rides, family-friendly movies in the “Dundas IMAX” silo, photo ops in front of the “LOVE” sign, spelled in pumpkins, and a vintage Coca-Cola ice box stocked with bottled sodas, which stands inside the log barn that the Parrishes disassembled from a nearby farm and reassembled—log by numbered log—on their own property.

And with help from local teenagers and a robust college intern program, the family (including Jeff’s 82-year-old father Wayne) is front and center, managing everything from growing the pumpkins to driving the hayrides.

Son Cary, now a senior at Virginia Tech, is the audio-visual and electronics whiz (compliment him if you like the music playing while you’re visiting). Eli, who holds a degree in Crop and Soil Sciences from Tech, made the case for installing the state-of-the-art drip irrigation system, because without a field of towering corn and a patch full of plump pumpkins, there goes your business plan. Daughter Vayda, a William & Mary graduate and now a magazine editor at Virginia Living, helps run social media and, in 2020, planted every pumpkin seed.

In the early days, Liz used to make gourmet caramel apples and fall-themed confections to sell, “but then it got out of control and I couldn’t keep up the pace,” she admits with a laugh.

Year after year since they first launched the pumpkin patch in 2009, the Parrishes have added new features, tested and fine-tuned different ideas, and integrated technologies—for COVID-19 precautions last fall, they swapped out the paper guide to the corn maze with a scannable QR code.

Parrish Pumpkin patch in Lunenburg county, Virginia.

And the visitors keep coming, the regulars and the newcomers, the couples and the families, the selfie-snapping Instagrammers, and the Presleys who had recently moved to Broadnax with their three children. “We loved it!” they declared after their first visit to the Pumpkin Patch last fall.

In that pandemic season, with schools and activities shut down and families desperate for something that wasn’t on a screen, the Parrishes adapted, welcoming a banner year of visitors who flocked to the farm every day from late September through the first weekend of November.

“The October thing is a bit of a marathon,” Jeff admits. “Being ready for thousands of people to come to your backyard for six weeks is a big deal.”

As to which pumpkin is best, Liz has an easy answer: “It’s subjective; the one you lke best.”

Six months for six weeks

For the Parrishes, however, those six weeks are the result of months of planning and preparation. The corn goes in sometime in April. The rule of thumb is as soon as you hear the whippoorwill, you plant your corn. The maze has to be cut by the beginning of June, or before the corn gets over knee height. Liz suggests the maze’s design (past years have featured a tractor, a French bulldog in honor of Buford, balloons, a Wizard of Oz theme), while Jeff and the boys handle the planning and cutting.

They capture an image of the field with Google Earth, then freehand the picture before mowing it out. No high-tech GPS-guided whiz-bang here: “They have come up with the system where three of them go out there with a piece of paper and somehow they do it to scale,” Liz says. “We started out a little rough around the edges, but we have lived and learned, and now we definitely have a system.” Every intersection has a wrong way and a right way, and Liz labors at length to come up with each year’s guide, filled with trivia questions suited to all ages.

Parrish Pumpkin patch in Lunenburg county, Virginia.

And then of course there’s the main show: the pumpkins. Seed selection begins in May, and by the 4th of July, they’ve planted 20 or more varieties of pumpkins on the 17-acre patch. Like them big? Try the giant white polar bear pumpkins—at 50 to 75 pounds, “there are people who drive here long distances to get those,” says Liz—or the orange “big moose.” Like them small? There are tabletop pumpkins and those perfect five-pounders with a stem—a classic that the Parrishes call their “field trip pumpkin” because it’s always a hit with school children, who arrive by the busload.

There are warty pumpkins and smooth pumpkins, pie pumpkins and carving pumpkins, pale peach and melon-yellow and zucchini-green pumpkins, squat pumpkins and tall pumpkins, snowball, and Cinderella, and fairy tale pumpkins. And don’t forget, it’s decorative gourd season too. “We do all kinds of gourds,” says Liz.

As to which pumpkin is best of all? Liz has an easy answer: “It’s subjective; the one you like best.”

Holidays and more

By the time the last pumpkin is harvested, you’d think that Jeff and Liz and the rest of the family would be ready to call it a season. But when you’re a Parrish, your idea of “leisure time” involves coming up with seven new ideas before breakfast and implementing them by lunch. There’s always another one coming to fruition.

Parrish Pumpkin patch in Lunenburg county, Virginia.

The inaugural Christmas Magic experience kicked off four weekends in December 2020 with a truckload of trees, garlands, and decorations from that Pennsylvania auction, hot cider and cocoa, holiday movies in the silo, lights strung on the barn and the hay wagon, and pumpkins (of course!) spray-painted green, dusted with glitter, and wrapped in garlands.

And Jeff made it snow.

From here, the family plans to restore the loft slide, gourd slingshot, and hands-on barnyard games that were shut down in 2020.

And they’re contemplating a year-round event space for weddings—Vayda’s is planned for Easter weekend—prom parties under the stars, and catered bar service in the grain bin. It’s their own little field of dreams, because they’re “glass half full” people, says Liz, and they’ve always believed that if you build it, they will come.

“It’s all been so well received,” says Liz. “We are really proud of the family traditions we have made over the years. And we have more surprises in the works. Stay tuned!”


Parrish Pumpkin patch in Lunenburg county, Virginia.

SIDEBAR: Who’s Jack And Why Does He Have a Lantern?

Why do we carve pumpkins at Halloween? It’s a tradition born of a cultural mash-up rooted in the folklore of the British Isles. As the story goes, “Stingy Jack” is a cheapskate trickster who plays the Devil for a fool and, consequently, finds himself unwelcome in both Heaven and Hell. Doomed to wander the Earth, a soul in perpetual unrest, Jack begs the Devil for an ember from Hell to light the way. He carries it in a lantern: thus Jack of the lantern.

At some point the folk tale of Jack and his lantern seems to have collided with the folk tradition of carving scary faces into root vegetables (like turnips, beets, or potatoes) to ward off restless spirits, like Jack. When Irish and Scottish immigrants brought the tradition across the Atlantic, it found a new and more expansive medium in the pumpkins native to North America.

From there it was but a hop, skip, and jump to $25 pumpkin-carving kits, live-streamed carving classes, and the same over-the-top one-upmanship that has turned Christmas lights into a competitive sport. Because if a couple of triangles for eyes and a snaggletoothed leer once sufficed, my friends, that time is no more.

There are professional pumpkin artists (Les Demoiselles d’Avignon on a gourd? Why not?); and speed pumpkin carvers (current Guinness World Record, 16.47 seconds, nabbed last fall at the Stable Craft Brewery at Hermitage Hill in Waynesboro by Pennsylvania schoolteacher Stephen Clarke); and, naturally, a reality television competition, Outrageous Pumpkins, which premiered last fall on Food Network.

And did it even happen if we didn’t tag it (#pumpkincarving) on Instagram?

Maybe we should ask Jack.

This article originally appeared in the October 2021 issue.

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