Meet the Farmer Who Runs the Pick Your Own Pumpkin Festival in Pontefract
A true symbol of autumn, pumpkins are highly sought after in the lead up to Halloween, and it’s so much fun to get out and pick your own. We spoke to farmer, Robert Copley, to find out more about pumpkin picking and what this time of year means for him
While for many of us the humble pumpkin (which is actually a fruit) rarely comes to mind before Halloween approaches, for Robert Copley, owner of Farmer Copley’s in Pontefract, he has to think about this long before October arrives. ‘In mid-April I take delivery of the seeds and, as we grow 30 different varieties here, each with different growing timescales, we plant the seeds in little plug plants in growth order in a polytunnel,’ explains Robert.
‘They take about four weeks to become three inches tall, when we can then plant them out in the field. We plant them into what looks like plastic but it’s actually biodegradable mulch made of cornstarch that becomes fertiliser. This minimises our chemical use because it keeps the weeds down because they can’t go through the mulch. Then that’s pretty much it – we leave it up to God to water them – which he hasn’t been very good at this year.’
The Copley family have been farming on the same site for 150 years and, after temporarily moving away to study and work, Robert and his wife Heather came back to Yorkshire with the intention of bringing their children up on the farm. ‘I was born on the farm so when Heather became pregnant we thought it would be really nice to bring our children up on the farm too,’ says Robert.
‘At that point it was just a plain arable/dairy farm, not making a lot of money, so we began looking at different ways of diversifying. We first looked at paint balling or soft play but we both have a passion for food so decided that a farm shop was the best way forward. In 2003 we moved back to Pontefract and opened the farm shop – and it’s just gone from strength to strength.’
Since then, Robert says the business has quadrupled in size and now offers a year-round farm shop, café, and bakery that supplies the farm shop, as well as running a variety of events and seasonal activities – one of the biggest being their Pick Your Own (PYO) Pumpkin Festival.
‘Twelve years ago we decided to try a small pumpkin patch up in the fields where we could take people to pick the pumpkin and carve it onsite to keep the mess out of their own homes, and it’s just been a huge success ever since. It’s sort of doubled in size every year and we’re now maxed out really,’ says Robert.
Now a ticketed event – thanks to 12-mile queues to get in a few years ago – Robert and his team grow more than 200,000 pumpkins across 50 acres, with up to 8,000 people a day coming to pick them every day during the festival. They also grow over 30 different varieties of pumpkins in all sizes, shapes and colours, as well as lots of squashes and gourds.
‘It’s turned into a full-blown festival with fair rides, a bar, street food marquee, walk about characters, falconry events, axe-throwing, archery, storytelling and a DJ playing country music throughout the whole day,’ Robert explains. ‘It’s a very ‘Instagrammable’ event. We know it’s not just all about that perfect pumpkin, it’s also making sure you take that perfect picture too. So we have tons of photo opportunities including our Chevy truck and famous ‘How Tall This Fall board’ to see how much the kids have grown since last season. It’s just a very nice, feel-good and happy event for the whole family.’
He adds: ‘Everything we grow is edible so we also promote eating it as much as possible. In October we dress the shop up so it’s all pumpkin cake, pumpkin soup, pumpkin lattes, pumpkin sausage, anything you can put pumpkin in – you certainly know you’re walking into a pumpkin farm when you walk in here at this time of year.’
Of course this doesn’t all happen without some serious work behind the scenes. ‘Pumpkins are quite a low chemical-usage plant, Robert explains. ‘In terms of fertiliser – you know when the council come and take away your garden waste, they actually take that back to a recycling facility and turn it into something called PAS100 which is basically a compost as good as you can buy at the garden centre. We take about 500 tonnes a year of that PAS100 compost and put it on the pumpkin patch.
‘Then in September we have to go through it and cut every pumpkin off the vine. You’ve got to do that because the plants naturally die if you leave them on the vine too long as mildew goes down into the pumpkin and will make them rot. So we cut them off the vine but we leave them in situ in the field. We do move a few pumpkins to keep the pumpkin patch looking fresh but most of the pumpkins are picked and left where they grew.’
So why is Farmer Copley’s Pumpkin Festival so successful? ‘Pumpkins will grow anywhere in the UK and up to Scotland quite easily. There are pumpkin patches all over the country,’ Robert says. ‘However, here is especially good simply because of the enthusiasm of everyone that comes to the festival. I know it sounds cheesy but it’s great people that make it a great festival and one of the best things about it is that everyone can get involved.
‘If you go to a soft play the parents tend to sit drinking a cup of tea while the kids run about by themselves, but for us that’s not really a family day out. Ours is a proper family event where everyone gets involved and that’s what’s nice about it, and probably why everyone loves it so much.’
Farmer Copley’s Pumpkin Festival runs, 16th–18th and 20th–31st October at Ravensknowle Farm, Pontefract WF7 5AF.
For more information head to farmercopleys.co.uk or give them a call on 01977 600200.
• Make sure you go to a patch where the pumpkins are actually grown. It’s a much more authentic experience and the pumpkins are likely to be fresher.
• When you pick a pumpkin, as long as you don’t scratch it or take a gouge out of it, it will last until Christmas. Whereas, as soon as you cut it you’ve got about four or five days. So leave them as long as you can if you’re going to turn them into jack-o-lanterns.
• When you scoop out the seeds, don’t put them in the rubbish. You can toast the seeds and they’re really good to eat.
• Pumpkins are compostable and when you’re finished with them make sure to put them in the compost bin or take them to your local pig farm – they love them.
• Wear the right clothes! The number of people I’ve seen walking in white trainers, and at the end of the day in October in a field, white trainers are not the suitable footwear. Also, wear something warm for the same reason.
• Finally, as well as buying one for the jack-o-lanterns, buy one of the sweet pumpkins to eat. Keep an eye out for the Blue Crown Princes, they’re the best to eat. You can make pumpkin cake and pumpkin pie or pumpkin can also be a replacement for turnip and swede in stews and casseroles.