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Harvesting Business

Whether they're selling crops, costumes or corn mazes, Illinois businesses continue to find ways to harvest fall products and profits.

By LIZA ROCHE

Whether they're selling crops, costumes or corn mazes, Illinois businesses continue to find ways to harvest fall products and profits. For example, that pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving? It's almost certainly an Illinois product. With more than 12,000 acres of the fall favorite harvested here each year, Illinois is the nation's top pumpkin producer. Illinois produces about 40 percent more than the second highest pumpkin-producing state, Michigan. The crop's value varies, but generally exceeds $10 million each year.

The biggest pumpkin producer of them all is Frey Farms Produce, located in Keenes, Ill. "She's the pumpkin queen," says Illinois Department of Agriculture spokesman Jeff Squibb about the farm's president, Sarah Frey-Talley. Frey Farms, still family operated, uses about 1,200 to 1,400 acres of landsome their own and some contracted out to grow pumpkins.

The company sells more than a million pumpkins in a single season to the nation's largest retailer, Wal-Mart. Frey-Talley says her business, which offers about a dozen heirloom varieties, including white and grey-blue pumpkins, hires locals to paint about 80,000 pumpkins over a three-week period. The pre-decorated pumpkins are then sold nationwide. The business has provided her with so much decorating know-how that Frey-Talley is now working on a how-to book geared toward decorating with pumpkins and gourds.

"Sort of the Martha Stewart of pumpkins," Frey-Talley says.

Illinois' dominance in pumpkins doesn't end with production, but includes processing, too. In fact, most of the state's pumpkins are canned at one of two plants near Peoria and used to make pies and other dishes, according to the Illinois Department of Agriculture.

In recent years, efforts have been made to promote Illinois specialty crops, such as pumpkins. The state's department of agriculture now has a red, white and blue logo that can be placed on produce, letting consumers know it's grown in the state. It's a step that they hope promotes the concept of buying locally, says Squibb. Buying locally, especially directly from grower to customer, is a big benefit for both parties, he adds. The state office is hearing of more and more examples ofChicago-area groupsoften neighborhoodsplacingproduce orders at the start of the growing season with an individual farmer. Buying direct can mean added profits for farmers, who "typically are price takers, not price makers," Squibb says.

There are no crops being grown for consumption at Bengston's Pumpkin Farm in Homer Glen, near Orland Park. Even so, they've made big business out of celebrating fall. Approximately 100,000 people visit the farm in the month of October, says Dave Bengston, who has been operating it with other family members for about 25 years.

At the farm, visitors can have fall fun as they go through a haunted barn, squash pumpkins with a launching device and enjoy pony rides. All of the activities are fall-focused, and the farm is open to the public for only a month (through Oct. 29). Considering the short window of opportunity, the main determinant in profits is the weather, says Bengston.

"The weatherit's 'make it or break it,'" Bengston says, adding they can predict attendance fairly well on the weather alone. Last year, he noted some haunted houses noticed low attendance because of another force keeping crowds awaythe Chicago White Sox's road to the World Series.

"For a business that is mainly focused on admission sales during a short period of time, the fall season is 100 percent of our business," Bengston says.

That's not the case at Fantasy Costumes in Chicago. Some might most associate the business with Halloween, but owner George Garcia says the ghoulish fall holiday only accounts for 35 to 40 percent of his business. "It takes us until January to get cleaned up," Garcia says of the fall rush, which runs directly into other high-demand offerings, such as SantaClaus and other Christmas costumes.

Garcia estimates that 50,000 people come through the shop, located at 4065 N. Milwaukee Ave., during the month of October. Inside, the shop offers thousands of costumes, including 700 different styles for kids. Halloween is certainly busy, he says, but it's just part of the year. His business also caters to school plays and other theater productions, professional clowning, drag queens and even his original product, hair wigs.

To make Halloween customers especially happy, Garcia says it's important to shape his inventory to the year's trends and interests. They depend heavily on the summer movie season. This year he's stocking extra costumes of pirates, superheroes like Spiderman and Superman and the guys from Miami Vice.

Published: August 01, 2006
Issue: November 2006