From Curly the llama to the donut-loving pigs to the itty bitty chicks, we live the real-life Charlotte's Web at the farm and we love every minute.
Life on the farm is pretty sweet for these guys: all the leftovers they can eat; a lot of people to rub their noses and scratch their backs; and and the best caretaker ever, Judy, who keeps them fed, warm, and happy in their barnyard homes.
Here's a peak at our animals through the years - here's to you, farm buddies!
Thanks for visiting us this year to say hello to the barnyard crew!
In the early years, operating the kettle corn machine came with very specific instructions:
Don't use too much oil. Stir frequently. And when it catches on fire, shut off the gas and go find Kyle.
Back in that day, the $5,000 price tag on a new kettle corn machine was a little out of Kyle's budget, so he rounded up some family members and they put their "sure, I can make that" farmer attitude to work. The very first kettle corn machine was a product of a conversation with a knowledgeable carnival worker, quite a bit of YouTube research, some spare parts in the barn, and a little welding, It was what Kyle calls "a little quirky," but it did the job...that is, until it caught on fire. (And, yes, the answer to your question is, it did catch on fire...twice.)
Today, Kyle has a less Frankenstein monster-esque kettle corn machine, one that our employees can operate without needing a fire extinguisher at arm's reach. And these delicious kernels are a fall season staple!
The origins of our apple cider donuts also started under unusual circumstance. The summer Kyle decided to add the Snack Shack onto the old white barn, donuts were high on the list for food offerings, but the machine to make them was difficult to find. At that time, he was working pretty closely with the Grant County Fair board and had gotten to know the carnival operator very well. Kyle mentioned he was looking to add donuts to the fall season during a chat with him one day...and wouldn't you know - the guy had an old donut machine lying around in a trailer that he was going to toss out.
So the old donut machine came to call Vesperman Farms home. It didn't make great-looking donuts - they were misshapen and uneven - but the staff couldn't keep up with the orders. And Kyle knew that they were on to something with these donuts.
Although maybe not as dangerous as that first kettle corn machine, a lot of problem solving when into that first donut machine. Twice in that first fall season Kyle had to overnight parts when the motor burned up. And because the thing was old, there wasn't even a motor that fit it, so he spent nights reworking the motor to fit the machine.
Since that forgotten donut machine, Kyle has since upgraded to two newer models that are much more efficient and precise. Now we make 75-100,000 donuts every fall season!
Later one of those same motors ended up in the kettle corn machine, running the first auto-stir function that saved Kyle and his staff from some serious burns from hot, popping sugar. (Kyle used to dress basically like a beekeeper to keep himself from getting burned while stirring the popcorn.)
Donut making then....
...and donut making now!
Both the donuts and kettle corn have found their niche at the farm, and oftentimes are the favorite part of fall season for many of our guests. It's been fun for Kyle to see both foods evolve and take their own special place in many people's fall season experience. These fall treats are available soon - fall season starts September 22!
Can I just wax poetic about loaded baked potatoes for a minute?
Okay, you said no, but I'm going to do it anyway. Sorry.
There's no food that says sweet summer nights to me more than a loaded baked potato in a cardboard boat. Grab it from a food truck and then dish up your toppings at the condiment station. Eat it with a spork (or eventually your fingers because the spork would always break) while walking through the lights and the noise and the carnival color. Just pure deliciousness in the simplest of forms.
Now, baked potatoes are saying sweet fall days because they are making their debut at the farm this season. And I am so excited because I didn't think fall could get better...but it did. Good hearty potatoes with good hearty toppings. I'll be first in line to get mine!
This is just your average premium-selected, dry-rubbed-in-a-special-blend-of-herbs-and-spices, and slow-smoked-for-eight-hours brisket sandwich that you can find pretty much everywhere.
That's a lie. This brisket is pretty special, and you can get it here on the farm this fall season. You don't even need the sauces. They're really just for show.
They are locally sourced. They are hand cut, hand breaded, and then hand deep-fried (just kidding...we do that last step with a tongs).
And then they are served up to you new this fall season: chicken strips!
Sure these are for kids. But more importantly, YES, it's socially acceptable to order off the kid's menu here at the farm.
For a lot of this off-season, Kyle and his food crew have been experimenting in the kitchen. The fruits of that labor are four delicious food and drink options that are new for fall season! And we're going to be featuring them right here on the blog. AND if you pop on over to our Facebook page, you could win a free meal or two...or in this case, a free drink!
Kyle's been making fresh-squeezed lemonade for Night on the Square and a lot of other events off the farm, but this year we're offering it during fall season. It'll be available in the Snack Shack, reopening this fall season in the comeback story of the year (for us at least...more on that in a few weeks). Chat with Judy or me (cause I'll be there on weekends sucking on lemon rinds and stealing donuts) while you watch us make this refreshing and delicious drink! And enjoy!
The corn maze at Vesperman Farms came about because of the sesquicentennial.
The very first corn maze that Kyle is aware of was in East Central Pennsylvania back in 1993. Five years later, in 1998, corn mazes came to Wisconsin in the form of Wisconsin. For the state's 150-year celebration, a farm in Janesville offered a maze in the shape of our cheesehead state. There was no pumpkin patch or activities or food accompanying this first maze, but the novelty of it attracted 50,000 people.
And this got Kyle thinking. At that time, he was selling pumpkins in Lancaster, but was already having ideas to bring a bigger version of his hobby 4H project back to the farm.
A New Idea Crops Up
Back in the 90's and early 2000's, farms like ours were very basic. They had pumpkin patches - and sometimes wagon rides to them - where you could buy pumpkins. Orchards sold apples. And maybe there were some jams and jellies and even some apple cider to purchase while you were there. At that time, "farm tourism" was a wholesomely new concept and people in the biz were just beginning to form ideas for activities, food options, and big attractions like corn mazes.
So in 2002, with the mutterings of this farm tourism concept developing, Kyle visited a couple of farms to look into the idea of moving his pumpkins back to the farm. He started to really like the idea of a "farm destination," so we opened for our first season on the farm that fall. The first year was just "take a ride to the pumpkin patch" and little else, but the plans for the life-sized twists and turns in the corn maze were in place for the next year.
Mazed and Confused
Now, I didn't know this, but even 20 years ago there were companies that designed corn mazes. And when Kyle decided to forge ahead with the maze idea, he really swung for the fences. He didn't hire just any maze designer - he hired the guy who designed the very first corn maze, a man who has set multiple Guinness world records and is world-renowned for his craft, England-based designer Adrian Fisher.
Keep in mind that Kyle was 20 years old, a junior in college at this point, just starting out his business, trying to keep up with classes and life. I mean, he's basically still a kid. And he calls a world-renowned designer to help a tiny up-start farm in Southwest Wisconsin add a maze.
So one day Kyle was in class and his phone rang. And he could tell it was a call from Europe but he couldn't answer - he was in class. He checked the voicemail after and it was Adrian Fisher, telling him that he'd love to do a corn maze for the farm. And Kyle called him back and they started work.
I asked, "Kyle, how did you get the nerve to call this guy up and negotiate terms and work with designers and do all these very adult things when you were still at the point where you wouldn't even answer your phone for a big business opportunity while you were in class!?" And he responded with great simplicity - for this is Kyle after all - "Anything worth doing is never simple. I wanted people to really be wowed by the maze."
After phone calls and emails over the ocean, the company delivered their design: a giant Jack-o-Lantern. Then Kyle, his parents, and his friend Matt spent four days and about 70 hours on the 5-acre plot cutting out the pathways, taking this concept design....
...to this backbreaking labor....
...and finally to this reality.
A Field of Ears
For the first five years, Fisher and his company designed the corn maze at the farm. And for those first five years, Kyle and his friends cut out the rows to bring it to life. After Fisher stopped working in the U.S., Kyle began working with the MAiZE company out of Utah and hired another company (again, I did not know companies like this existed) that specializes in cutting maze designs to shape the rows.
In the second or third year, Kyle also began designing and cutting a mini maze for kiddos and school groups. This process is a little less exact than the main event, but no less fun!
Come Ear Often?
It takes most people an hour or two to navigate the winding rows of the corn maze at Vesperman Farms. But for those involved in bringing this unique experience to the public, it's a year-long effort of creativity, watching the weather, agricultural know-how, and, yeah, a lot of passion.
The maze has taken a variety of forms in the last 15 years. From the first Jack-o-Lantern, it's been a crop circle, a big catfish, a steamboat, a flag and eagle, farm sceneries, and a scarecrow. Every year has brought different challenges and experiences to both the people responsible for the maze and for the people enjoying the fruits of this particular harvest.
For almost everyone, the maze fulfills a need for odd diversions or for simpler pleasures. Ann Dolan, a retired teacher who guides our school groups through the mini maze, believes that a corn maze represents a challenge and a joy to people who participate. "The kids love to make decisions and problem solve. They feel so accomplished when they make it through to the end," she says.
The maze - as with everything we do - is also about spending time on the farm. Navigating through the maze isn't just a walk through the cornfield. It's about sharing ideas and thoughts with your companions; about going down the wrong path and laughing about it; and it's about your relationships, with each other, with us, and with the farm. To us, the maze is really just another way people can enjoy life on the farm.
This year's corn maze is already cut and shaping up for you fall goers, and as always, we're counting the days until we open it up for the public. This year we'll send you off into the maze with some well wishes from Ann, who always tells her school group kids before they enter:
We enjoyed getting to know you guys. And we really want you to know that. You know...in case we never see you again.
"The pumpkin is a womb" is probably the most poetic thing I've ever heard Kyle say. But I guess after 20+ years of growing, there's a lot of love between the pumpkin and this pumpkin farmer.
Today the crew is finishing planting the 7-acre pumpkin patch at the farm. We plant a few varieties, from small cooking pumpkins to bigger ones for carving. In the next week or so, the pumpkins will start to pop out of the ground, and in 95-115 days, they will be fully grown, ready for fall.
Planting this year has taken about three days. The rain, including the spectacular cloudburst on Friday night, delayed us a few times. But the hot weather the last two days made for a great day of planting today!
To plant the pumpkins, Kyle uses a modified corn planter - an old Case plate planter - which seats two people, each in front of a seed hopper. These helpers drop seeds into into the hopper, which disperses the seed into the furrows. It's a hot, slow job, but it used to be a lot more painstaking. Like all things here at the farm, Kyle has constantly innovated his process - today we plant more pumpkins than we ever have, but at least it's not all on our hands and knees!
When I asked Kyle about what he's learned after all these years of growing pumpkins, he said it just comes down to weather and timing. Pumpkins need a good amount of rain right after planting to establish their root structure and develop their vines, but the hot, dry heat of August is perfect for when they are setting fruit. Last year was one of the best years for pumpkins: a lot of rain in July and a hot, dry August and early September.
It was during this conversation that I learned the pumpkin itself is really just a vessel (or womb, as Kyle said, to my delight) for the pumpkin seed. The pumpkin grows the outer skin and pulp during hot weather, which in turn serve as protective covering for those seeds. The pumpkin protects its seeds until the outer portion breaks down, releasing these soon-to-be pumpkins into the ground and starting the growing process all over again.
So the next time you find a whopper in the patch, give it some credit: it's been doing a really good job. And now I have a lot of questions about which came first: the pumpkin or the seed?
Fun on the farm...in blog form!