The road to Shlagel Farms’ annual pumpkin celebration is edged by acres of cabbage and collard greens.
The weekends-only event is one of the many options for pumpkin patch visits in Maryland and Virginia.
At Shlagel, which is in Waldorf (12850 Shlagel Rd.), organizers try to combine fall fun with lessons about food production. It’s rich in kid-friendly attractions: a hay-bale maze to navigate, animals to see, boxes of field corn to sit in and sift through; and a tractor-drawn ride to the pumpkin patch to choose a specimen perfect for carving in the final Halloween rush.
“My son and daughter spent a solid 40 minutes playing in the corn box and still cried when we had to leave,” says Alice Riedel, a Capitol Hill resident.
The farm works at making visits memorable, but that doesn’t keep farmer Russell Shlagel from talking plainly.
“I’ll be honest: When we started this, we did it to make a buck,” he says of the pumpkin patch. (Entry is $8; free for age 2 and younger.)
But the weekends aren’t so lucrative or convenient. Fall is a busy time for planting for the spring and shipping crops.
So why bother?
“I began to see [the pumpkin patch] as an opportunity to educate people,” says Shlagel, 57.
“We’ve got customers four or five generations removed from the farm. We’ve got school kids coming here who don’t understand the size of a cow until they see one. ... They get to pick their pumpkin and learn something” about where food comes from, too.
Shlagel, up by 2 a.m. most days, belongs to a family with farming in its blood. He’s got the stories to prove it.
“In November of 1933, my grandfather [Otto Schwingenschlogl, who had come to the United States from Bavaria in 1906] was cutting down a tree in the cow pasture,” Shlagel says.
As the tree began to fall the wrong way, Otto pushed his son, Otto Jr., 16, to safety and was killed. Shlagel’s grandmother Mary died six weeks later — of a broken heart, the family lore goes. “Dad was in the sixth grade then,” Shlagel says of his father, George, who never returned to school.
George Shlagel (the family name got truncated) and his four siblings — all of them teenagers — ran the farm.
Russell and his three siblings grew up cutting tobacco. At 31, he persuaded his dad to shift to vegetables. They were sold from the back of their truck and to small grocers and restaurants.
A partnership with Giant Food Inc. has proved fruitful, Shlagel says: “If it weren’t for their [commitment to buying food from local farmers], I don’t know where we’d be.”
Shlagel does not volunteer family history with pumpkin patch visitors, but he wants to make sure children learn that food doesn’t magically appear — including pumpkins.