Backstory

Backstory: Farmer reaps rewards of weird and exotic pumpkins

vbridges@newsobserver.comOctober 14, 2013 

Milton Ganyard operates Ganyard Hill farm, where he grows and sells pumpkins and corn and offers family-friendly activities in the fall, such as hay rides, corn mazes and an exotic pumpkin patch.

VIRGINIA BRIDGES — vbridges@newsobserver.com

  • Advice from Milton Ganyard

    •  Farmers who want to be in the agritourism industry need to enjoy being around people and have a personality that people will take to.

    •  Run your business at a profit. You have got to know what it costs you and charge enough – but not too much.

    • Know how to work the land if your business includes a farm.

— As Milton Ganyard walked through his “weird and exotic” pumpkin patch, he pointed out the treasures beneath the vines and wide leaves.

There were small, ghostly-white pumpkins. Pumpkins named “big warty thing,” “pink banana jumbo” and “one too many,” with skin that looks like bloodshot eyes.

Ganyard Hill Farm on Sherron Road in Durham even had some pale-pink pumpkins with seeds that were used to raise money for breast cancer.

For 19 years, Ganyard, 70, has been in the pumpkin-farming and seasonal family-entertainment business. He makes a living, he said, and enough to save a little and invest in equipment each year. Initially, the eighth-generation farmer and Georgia native turned his back on those roots to secure a sustainable income without the grueling schedule. He has a doctorate in entomology, has worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and owned an environmental research business for 15 years.

In 1994, however, Ganyard shed the stress of running his company, and bought 89 acres on N.C. 98. He opened Ganyard Hill Farm a year later with his wife, Karen Whitener Ganyard, who died in 2001.

In 2004, Ganyard, who lives in Cary, sold his land to a developer and moved his operation the next year to leased property about three miles away.

In the first year, revenue dropped 30 percent, but has since doubled.

The 115 acres include pumpkin patches, corn mazes for adults and kids, rabbits, goats and pigs. It also has hay rides, a cotton field, a haystack called hay mountain and two cribs filled with 52,000 pounds of dried corn kernels.

“We put the corn in 18 inches deep,” Ganyard said, which prevents bare feet from touching the grainy bottom as people pounce, roll and splash in the kernels.

Ganyard got the idea from a customer who had put dried kernels in a baby pool for a birthday party. He built the first version in 2009, but replaced it with an improved version in 2010, and added a larger one in 2012. At the end of the season, which starts on the last weekend in September and extends through mid-November, the kernels are bagged and sold to hunters.

Last year, about 14,000 walk-ins paid admission to the farm. About 9,000 more visited on field trips. Entry costs $12.50 per person; military families, parties and field trips get a discounted rate.

Pumpkins mostly come from the farm’s fields but a small percentage of larger ones are brought in from the mountains. The business donates hundreds of pumpkins each year to Durham Public Schools.

Ganyard tries to stay ahead of the competition with projects such as the corn cribs and the exotic pumpkin section.

Ganyard started experimenting with exotic pumpkins by planting five varieties in a small patch last year. At first, people didn’t notice, he said, but customers bought them all once they found them.

“I thought, ‘I think I am onto something,’” he said.

This year, Ganyard planted 27 varieties on two acres by hand, but not all of them made it. Once people discover the area, they set out on a hunt for all the strange surprises it has to offer.

“People were coming out of there with the biggest smiles on their faces,” he said. “They are so proud of what they got, they have got to show me.”

Bridges: 919-829-8917

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