Nearly seven months before families descend on his farm each year, Josh Sickinger is busy at work.
While picking the perfect pumpkin is usually reserved for a crisp, cool fall day in October, preparing the farm for fall harvest is a year-round job; each season begins in March and lasts through much of the following winter, says the owner of Harvest Tyme Pumpkin Patch in Lowell.
It’s an unforgiving schedule, especially for the owner of the family farm who also works as a CPA and a corporate controller at a local trucking company.
“Right now, I have a 4-year-old and 2-year-old at home that I don’t get to see very often during this time of the year,” Sickinger said.
“They love visiting the farm, though, so I’m confident that one day they’ll enjoy spending time with me out there and lending a helping hand at the pumpkin patch.”
This year will mark the 11th year in the pumpkin business for Sickinger, though for his family, it’s long been a tradition. The farm has been in his family since the mid-1800s, though from 1958 to 2007, others farmed the land.
Sickinger instead grew up around the jewelry business — his parents own Sickinger’s Jewelry in Lowell — but in 2007, he became interested in growing pumpkins on a large scale and began farming the land.
He says customers continually are surprised that operating a pumpkin farm is more than just a seasonal business.
“We may only be open for six weeks, but running it is a year-long task,” he said.
Sickinger shared with The Times what it takes to successfully prepare the pumpkin patch for fall pickers, as well as a behind-the-scenes look into what most customers don’t see.
As a pumpkin-patch owner, Sickinger begins his season well before the September and October harvest when he attends an annual Maize Conference in March to share ideas and visit with other pumpkin patch and corn maze owners from around the country.
“After the convention, we sit down with our management team and have planning meetings to determine what new attractions we will be adding for the upcoming season, as well as what improvements can be made to give our guests an overall better experience,” he said.
Once the weather breaks, the corn is planted in late May for the corn maze and the pumpkins are planted mid-June. The corn maze design is cut two to three weeks after the corn has been planted while the corn stalks are very short, and maintenance of the fields and grounds continue throughout the summer.
“Considerable time is spent during the summer going through each ride to be sure it is properly maintained,” Sickinger said. “In early August, we begin unpacking the barns and setting up the attractions for the season.”
Just before the season begins is when the farm is bustling.
“Ironically, people always think that October is my busiest time,” Sickinger said.
“In fact, my busiest time is the end of August and all of September. Prepping and getting everything ready for our guests is more time consuming than when the pumpkin patch is actually open.”
After the six-week season is over, the family begins packing up all the attractions and winterizing the operation.
“This usually takes the full month of November,” Sickinger said. “Then it is on to the books to get everything accounted for properly. After that, it is time to start everything over again.”
Each year, the Sickingers plant new seeds, and at a minimum of every three years, workers must rotate the fields to prevent certain diseases from developing in the soil.
After planting the pumpkins, the most important aspect to focus on is managing weeds, Sickinger said.
“You have to stay on top of the weeds while they are small,” he said.
“Since pumpkins vine out as they grow, it becomes very difficult to weed after they have been planted for a month or so.”
Starting in mid-July through harvest, he continually scouts the field for any signs of diseases that will affect the pumpkins’ growth.
“With disease management in pumpkins, you have to take a proactive approach to protecting them rather than a reactive approach,” he said. “Once a field has been affected, it is impossible to rid it of the disease. You can slow its spread at best.”
The most difficult part about running a farm is the time Sickinger spends away from his family, he says.
The unpredictable weather also can turn a season challenging.
“Weather plays a huge part in how successful our season will be and being that we are located in Northwest Indiana, it is very typical for the weather to be all over the place during the season,” he said.
The farm experienced record highs on opening weekend last year, and by the final weekend of the season, temperatures had dipped to the mid-40s.
“From beautiful and sunny to rainy and windy to sleeting and bitter cold, we have literally seen it all,” Sickinger said.
Though it has taken a significant capital investment to get the farm where it is today, Sickinger says he sees a promising future.
“As the business continues to grow, I believe one day the pumpkin patch will be able to sustain the costs associated with the farm,” he said.
Just like the saying, “It takes a village to raise a child,” Sickinger says the farm would not be where it is today without the help of everyone involved.
It’s this sense of family that provides one of the biggest benefits to owning the pumpkin patch, and although he spends time away from the family while maintaining the farm, he often relies on the help of his loved ones to make it successful.
His wife, Melissa, provides constant support, while his mother is at the farm every Friday through Sunday during the season helping to ensure everything runs smoothly, he said.
“She handles food orders, phone calls, birthday parties, field trips, group outings and so much more,” Sickinger said.
“My dad works six days a week at Sickinger’s Jewelry and will come out on his only day off to help me in the fields or do whatever miscellaneous task I need him to do.”
His brother, Jason, also will run to the farm if Sickinger is at his full-time job and can’t be on site.
“There are so many others who help me that may not be family by blood, but have become a huge part of my life because of this farm,” he said.
Though Sickinger enjoys the traditional aspects of running a farm, his favorite part come fall harvest is getting to share the excitement of the amusement rides with all the families who visit the patch.
“I’ve always had a love for the carnival and fairs, and owning this pumpkin patch has given me the opportunity to have my own little piece of it in the town I love the most,” he said.
“I love that I can share these things that mean so much to me with my guests, so that they can create fall family memories year after year.”