Hero Image

Pampering pumpkins

Mark Prado
Marin Independent Journal


Randy Lafranchi has made the difficult task of farming in West Marin into a treat for hundreds of families each year as he converts two acres of his Nicasio ranchland into a pumpkin patch.


And it's not any type of pumpkin patch. It's organic, meaning pesticides and chemical fertilizers are not used.


When the end of the month rolls around - the patch will open to the public Sept. 30 - there will not only be pumpkins, but a slide, hay ride, mazes sculpted from corn stalks and hay bales, along with a whole lot of smiles.


"I like the smiles on kids faces," said Lafranchi, near the burgeoning pumpkin patch on his ranch off Nicasio Valley Road. "Even the grouchiest person is happy when they come to a pumpkin patch. Everyone is in good mood at a pumpkin patch."


In a few weeks, activity at the patch will be in full swing. But now the land is quiet as pumpkins rest in his field, nurtured by water and sunlight as they grow by the day. A few are turning a familiar orange, but most are still shades of green, brown or yellow.


The patch diversifies ranch operations, which were focused on wavering milk prices.


"We have a family dairy up the road, that has been in the family over 80 years," he said. "We were looking to diversify 11 years ago. The dairy business was so up and down, and it was mostly down."


Initially, Lafranchi grew strawberries and other fruits and vegetables in addition to pumpkins.


"The strawberries are too labor intensive, the picking is hard to do," Lafranchi said. "We stopped that three years ago."


Now the focus is on the pumpkins. Initially, Lafranchi planted them all over his acreage, but discovered he needed to rotate the crop to give the land a rest.


On his land, he grows a variety of pumpkins, Cinderellas, Howdens and Luminas among them, each growing in a different size and texture.


"Everyone likes something different," he said. "That makes them different sizes. Some like ones that look abnormal, others like the perfect one."


The process of growing a pumpkin that turns brown land into an orange wonderland takes about three months.


"Seeds are planted in June. You plant a seed every I6 inches and you start to see a little green after awhile, you can see it from the road. Then they become totally green and you get some nice, pretty yellow flowers. As the plants die back you start to see the pumpkins grow. Too much rain or too much heat is not good for the pumpkins, " Lafranchi said. "They grow quick. We cut them off the vine, at the stem."


Prices range from about $3 to $15, depending on size. In all, Lafranchi will grow about 2,000 pumpkins with the aide of two employees.


"We don't have much time left, we will open soon," he said, stepping through the patch this week. "Some of these are still very infant-sized, but a few are coming along."


On Oct. 8 the Marin Agricultural Land Trust will have "Harvest Day at the Farm" at the patch at 5300 Nicasio Valley Road. In addition to pumpkin fun, the event offers music, oysters, barbecued chicken and other foods. Admission is free.


"It's the only big organic patch in Marin that people can go to," said Helge Hellberg, executive director of Marin Organic. "They do a great job."


The pumpkin patch has helped Lafranchi's Nicasio Valley Farms survive.


"But farming in Marin is always a challenge," he acknowledged.


There will be more of an effort to go organic on the dairy side of operations.


"We are transitioning our dairy to organic," he said, noting his milk goes to Clover Farms. "It's a lot of work and costs are somewhat higher, but the organic price is higher. There is a shortage of organic milk and too much conventional milk.


"By the end of the year we will be 25 percent organic."


Contact Mark Prado via e-mail at mprado@marinij.com