A couple of years ago, my family went to one of those autumn entertainment complexes with a cornfield maze, a hay bale maze, a straw mountain, acres of pumpkins, wagon rides, a wading pool full of corn kernels, a haunted house, a petting zoo and more.
This year, I was looking for a pumpkin adventure that felt less like Nickelodeon Universe on a farm.
I found the answer when I heard about the trebuchet.
In medieval times, trebuchets flung rocks at enemy castles. In the peaceful St. Croix River Valley, a trebuchet hurls squash.
"We wanted to do something different, and it was a way we could define ourselves," said Sue Hegstrom, who last year started a small fall festival at Terra Nue Farm, just north of Shafer. She runs it with her friend and business partner Sherri Johnson.
"Besides, the dudes like them," she added.
No kidding. My husband went from lukewarm to gung-ho when I mentioned that our pumpkin-patch outing would involve a siege weapon.
We drove north from the Twin Cities and followed hand-painted "punkin chunkin" signs down a gravel road. I wasn't familiar with the term, but a Google search later turned up a World Championship Punkin Chunkin Association that holds an annual competition in Delaware. The high-tech pumpkin-hurling machines are a regular feature on the Science and Discovery channels.
We parked the van in a mown field where Hegstrom's father, Jack Hegstrom, picked us up in a tractor pulling a wagon.
"This is fun," said our
Johnson grew up on a dairy farm in Sleepy Eye. She was the oldest of nine children. Like a lot of farm kids who escape to the city, she never thought she would return to country life. But in 2004, she bought 20 acres, along with a farmhouse, some outbuildings and an old dairy barn.
"The older you get, the more you want a simple life," she said. "It's in your blood."
She started an organic vegetable garden. Hegstrom, who has a background in movie
"It sort of mushroomed," Johnson said. "We would have friends out for bonfires, and they had so much fun and it was so relaxing. We wanted to share it."
Last year, Hegstrom planted a couple of acres of pumpkins, sowing every seed by hand. Johnson built the trebuchet from plans they found online, with help from a cabinetmaker friend.
FUN OF FLINGING
A trebuchet looked like a cross between a teeter-totter and a sling-shot. A wood bucket with nearly 400 pounds of bagged sand weighed down the short arm of the teeter-totter. Attached to the other end was a mesh bag at the end of a long rope. Johnson said they had to hurl a lot of pumpkins before they figured out the optimal rope length.
My 10-year-old son took the first turn at the trebuchet. Hegstrom's friend Doug Barber pulled down the long arm, using a cable and an electric winch powered by a car battery. He secured the arm with a metal pin.
"I'll tell you a secret," Johnson said, as my son contemplated a pile of pumpkins. "The small ones go farther and the big ones go higher and make more of a splat."
My son immediately picked a big one, and Barber placed it in the
"One... two... three!" we all yelled. My son yanked on a rope that pulled out the pin. Imagine the heavy bucket of sand as a couple of linebackers perched in the air on one end of a teeter-totter. As they slammed down, the long arm flew up, whipping the rope in an arc and flinging the pumpkin skyward. The pumpkin hung for a second like an orange football and then smashed into the ground, sending orange chunks flying up several feet.
It was impressive. My son grinned hugely.
"Nice job, buddy," Johnson said. "Nice job."
My daughter went next, choosing a small pumpkin that, indeed, did go farther, maybe about 80 yards.
Last year, a 3-year-old boy smashed the back window of the pickup-truck target parked 100 yards away at the far end of the field. He was delighted, and his father was, well, a bit envious.
My 13-year-old son was last, but his pumpkin somehow smashed into the trebuchet. Johnson offered him another shot, but he decided to shoot apples in the apple slingshot instead.
AFTER THE SPLAT
While the trebuchet was a highlight, it wasn't the only thing we enjoyed about the farm.
We traipsed through a kid-friendly haunted house, created by Hegstrom's cousins. We warmed ourselves at a few bonfires, built on the ground inside recycled iron manhole rings. We explored the barn, where we bought hot dogs and pumpkin soup at a bar Johnson built using recycled doors. The walls are hung with antiques, including old horse collars and washboards.
My kids watched "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown" projected onto a giant white screen in the upstairs hayloft. The open space was unexpectedly beautiful. Johnson's niece aptly described the curved exposed rafters as "Noah's ark upside down."
We also enjoyed the animals, especially an alpaca that would lean over the fence to touch its furry brown lips to a visitor's face. Once we were sure the alpaca wouldn't spit at us, we tried this trick several times. And we were smitten with a 2-week-old pygmy goat that scampered and hopped like a windup toy.
Before we left for the day, we rode the wagon to the pumpkin patch. Hegstrom had taken orders earlier in the season for personalized pumpkins and had carved names into their skins. We passed pumpkins for "Owen," "Sam" and "Hazel" and even a "Will you marry me?" as we walked through the brown, dried vines looking for our perfect jack-o'-lantern. This time, we were concerned with shape, form and a good sturdy handle, not aerodynamics.
Maja Beckstrom can be reached at 651-228-5295.
What: Fall Festival at Terra Nue Farm
Where: 32025 Ranch Trail, Shafer, Minn.
Information: 651-332-4191, terranue.com
Hours: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekends in October, plus Oct. 18 and 19; (last movie screening at 5:30 p.m.)
Cost: $5 per person (2 and younger free) for hay rides, farm animals, kid-friendly haunted barn and screening of "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown" in the barn loft; release the trebuchet for $4; pumpkins for purchase, $3 to $5
Crowd pleaser: Seeing your pumpkin airborne.
Tip: The farm sells hot dogs, soup and cider, but you're welcome to bring your own food or hot cocoa to enjoy around the bonfire.
More: Search for other pumpkin patches and farms at pumpkinpatchesandmore.org or in the Minnesota Grown Directory at www3.mda.state.mn.us/mngrown. Find other Halloween and fall harvest events at twincities.com.