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Sonoma County pumpkin patch owners report sales slump in fires’ wake

Adam Fichtelman helps his daughter Reagan, 4, lift a pumpkin into a wheelbarrow at Punky's pumpkin patch in Santa Rosa, on Thursday, October 26, 2017. (BETH SCHLANKER/ The Press Democrat)

BILL SWINDELL AND CHRISTI WARREN,

As her 7-year-old son, Presley, played with a friendly goat Saturday at Eastside Seasonal Farm and Pumpkin Patch outside Santa Rosa, Wren Herman of Cotati said she was glad that Halloween is just around the corner — and that she could finally enjoy its approach in the aftermath of horrific wildfires.

“It takes you away from everything that has been going on,” Herman said of the afternoon visit to a family-owned fall attraction just north of Sonoma State University. “It’s the one back-to-normal thing we can go and do with our kids, and just be outside and enjoy it.”

Many families took the same approach Saturday, setting out under sunny skies for pumpkin patches that weeks ago were shrouded in heavy smoke, with some even menaced by flames. The popular autumn destinations, like other businesses across Sonoma County, saw traffic drop off during the relentless fires, with would-be customers steered away by roadblocks or displaced and left homeless by the destructive blazes.

Eastside Seasonal Farm owner Rob Wade said bigger crowds started turning up last weekend as more evacuation orders were lifted. His 10-acre property was spared damage, but from amid his pumpkins — he grows about 2,500 each year alongside a corn maze and a makeshift bowling alley — Wade can point across Petaluma Hill Road to the hills visibly charred by the Nuns fire burned on both sides of Sonoma Valley.

“I’m expecting less (sales), as we had a two-week loss. It’s hard to say, maybe everyone will come at the last minute,” Wade said.

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Other pumpkin patches also noted lighter crowds and less sales as a result of the fires. Perhaps none have suffered more than Punky’s Pumpkin Patch, in a field north of Santa Rosa behind the Luther Burbank Center.

The Tubbs fire burned through the perimeter of the patch, consuming pumpkins, three new bounce houses, trailers, tents, wagons, wheelbarrows and countless tools collected over the past 20 or so years by owner Mike Gutzman, said his daughter, Morgan Gutzman, 25. The property losses are an estimated $140,000, she said.

The Gutzmans, who were displaced from their Oakmont home for 11 days by a mandatory evacuation, re-opened Oct. 21, but sales are down, Morgan Gutzman said.

“A lot of our surrounding neighborhoods are no longer with us, and people not knowing we’re open is also part of it. People not knowing what to do with their kids.”

She worried the lot would also suffer during the winter season, when Punky’s converts to Kringle’s Korner Christmas Trees.

“We’re hoping, but a lot of our homes that we provided Christmas trees — the homes are no longer here,” she said. “All of Fountaingrove, Larkfield.”

With schools canceled across the county, another big financial impact for pumpkin farms has been the loss of school field trips, usually a reliable income provider, farmers said.

“That was a huge hit,” Gutzman said.

Santa Rosa Pumpkin Patch manager Hannah Smith, 25, estimated business is down about one-third from normal.

“The first weekend (after the fires), the 13th, the 14th, the 15th, that was usually our busy weekend,” she said. “We definitely took a big hit. ... We lost a lot with the field trips.”

At Petaluma Pumpkin Patch, along Highway 101 just north of town, owner and farmer Jim Groverman shut down the operation when the fires started, reopening Oct. 12 when the smoke cleared out a little.

“The one weekend, we were probably down 75 percent right after the fires,” Groverman said. “Everybody was still in shock. ... It’s coming back around to be more normal.”

His patch lost 11 days of visitors last year because of the early rains, he said.

“Out of 31 (days), that was a pretty big hit,” he said. “I just keep going. If last year wasn’t good, then I just have to keep saying next year, and at some point, you know, if you run out of next years, then it’s time to call it quits, but I’m young enough that I keep trying.”

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 707-521-5223 or bill.swindell@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @BillSwindell. You can reach Staff Writer Christi Warren at 707-521-5205 or christi.warren@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @SeaWarren.