Seeing orange: DeVries Farm owners look back on 44-year-old pumpkin legacy

Lori Schmaltz carries a pumpkin to a customer’s car Thursday at DeVries Farms. The family farm, in operation since 1971, offers dozens of varieties of pumpkins, gourds and Indian corn for sale each Halloween season. (Don Campbell | HP Staff)

Lori Schmaltz carries a pumpkin to a customer’s car Thursday at DeVries Farms. The family farm, in operation since 1971, offers dozens of varieties of pumpkins, gourds and Indian corn for sale each Halloween season. (Don Campbell | HP Staff)

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

ST. JOSEPH — A few days before Halloween, Robert DeVries can be seen walking through his front yard among the pumpkins arranged in neat rows, separated by size and color.

The grass around these rows of pumpkins are worn down by not just DeVries’ footsteps, but from the heavy traffic that combs the yard every year.

Driving past the white house at 3808 Cleveland Ave. in Lincoln Township, motorists notice the orange yard and haunting decorations. Behind the house is the DeVries Farm and even more pumpkins that make it a popular destination across Southwest Michigan.

The farm began in 1971 when DeVries’ two sons – Mark and Jim, who were 10 and 8 at the time – grew pumpkins as part of a 4-H project. After the county fair that year, there were a few pumpkins leftover in the small garden. The two brothers hauled what was left to the front yard, where they began to sell.

“The kids found out they could make some money off the pumpkins,” DeVries said. Fast forward 44 years, and the farm has grown to 10 acres. “I quit every year on the first of November, but my family keeps me coming back.”

It’s the 77-year-old’s family that keeps the farm going and growing. Running the farm alongside DeVries is his daughter, Lori Schmaltz.

“I’m not stopping,” she said. “It’s all family that runs the place.”

In the small 4-H garden, Schmaltz said her two brothers produced about 20 pumpkins that first year. In 2015, the family has filled about 120 bins. There are anywhere from 90 to 100 pumpkins to a bin.

DeVries said he enjoys working with his family the most. Other than his daughter and two sons, he also enlists the help of seven grandchildren and 17 great grandchildren.

What seems to be a bonus for DeVries are the familiar faces he sees each year.

“Seeing the kids come back with their kids is great to see,” he said. “We’ve seen a lot of generations come through here. We’ve got one family that has been coming here 38 years. They stop by every year.”

The decorative touch

The front lawn is covered in decorations that entice curious bystanders.

One of the first items spotted heading north on Cleveland Avenue away from the highway are a few hay bales strung together forming a large caterpillar. Along the house is one of Schmaltz’s many creations. With a carriage labeled “Elm Street Limo Service,” several mannequins and decorated scarecrows stand on a red carpet while listening to the song “Witch Doctor.”

Schmaltz specializes in decorating not only the lawn, but the pumpkins.

She wipes down the pumpkins before tracing intricate designs and characters with a felt-tip marker. Schmaltz uses Tucker’s model paint to do the rest by hand. She’s been personalizing pumpkins for 40 years.

One of Schmaltz’s pumpkin masterpieces this year was a Benton Harbor Tiger painted by hand for decoration. She’s had a hand in several designs, including sports teams.

“The hardest part of it all is coming up with what I’m going to do,” she said. “I try to out do what I did the year before. I’ve painted deer heads, Santa Clauses, a bull dog pumpkin for Ferris State (University). I do a lot of (University of) Michigan pumpkins, too.”

The decorations have their benefit. The farm along Cleveland Avenue sees lots of highway traffic.

DeVries said cars are normally backed up along their road at 5:30 p.m. every work day, just off of Glenlord Road. Cleveland Avenue brings new traffic that feeds in from states like Indiana and Illinois.

“We have a lot of traffic coming from Illinois,” Schmaltz said. “They drive down here to get the pumpkins and choose what one they want. Sometimes they call ahead to make sure we have what they want. They mostly come for the Atlantic giants (variety) because they are bigger.”

Growing jack-o’-lanterns

The second week of June is when DeVries and company begin planting. In September, the family harvests the pumpkins when they are ripe enough for sale. The timing coincides well with Halloween.

The busiest time for selling pumpkins is the second week of October, DeVries said.

“It’s busy in the beginning of (October) and we’ll get a rush a few days before (Halloween),” DeVries said. “This year we had a busy season because the weather has been perfect.”

With about 27 varieties of pumpkins and gourds, DeVries sells Atlantic giants, fat Jacks, autumn gold and wolf pumpkins.

The largest pumpkin they ever sold was a few years ago. It was comical loading the 123-pound pumpkin in a small sports car, DeVries said.

They ended up putting it in the front seat and buckling it in. DeVries said the driver made his wife sit in the back seat.

“It’s nice now because everybody’s got a van,” DeVries said. “Before, you had to fit them into trunks. We ended up tying down a lot of trunks.”

There was one brief time when the farm wasn’t churning out pumpkins. One year about 20 years ago, the family decided to give the land a break and didn’t grow pumpkins.

Schmaltz said they took their kids to buy pumpkins and decided to never do that again after seeing the prices.

“People were so mad,” she said. “They were really upset about it, and to be honest, so were we.”

While DeVries and Schmaltz laughed when asked if they thought the pumpkin farm would grow this much, it was DeVries’ wife, Jean, who said her two “greedy sons” seemed to know what could happen.

“Once they began selling them, the next year the boys decided to go bigger,” Jean said. “It’s been growing ever since.”

Contact Tony Wittkowski at twittkowski@TheHP.com or (269) 932-0358. Follow him on Twitter: @tonywittkowski.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on Oct. 31, 2015)

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