By BECKY MALEWITZ
SUBLETTE — On a cold October Thursday morning, just before last week's surprise snowfall, Steve Weidner and his wife, Janet, welcomed three USD 457 school buses and a convoy of cars, vans and SUV's making their way down the dirt road that leads to their Sublette farm.
Within minutes, more than 100 Plymell Elementary School parents, teachers and students were ready to spend the morning at Pumpkin Paradise, the seasonal attraction that entertains school children on weekdays and families on weekends.
This is the 11th year the Weidners have invited school kids and the public to their farm to pick their own pumpkins, get lost in the corn maze and enjoy the other aspects of the attraction that bring people back every year.
"We enjoy it. It's a lot of fun. Steve's not happy if he's not in some big project," Janet said. "Also, every farm needs a little extra income the way farming is these days."
Steve, who is a fourth generation farmer, says the annual extra income is definitely motivation to build the corn maze each fall, but he also enjoys seeing all of the different types of pumpkins that sprout each year and being a place where the younger generation can have new experiences.
"I would say probably 90 to 95 percent of the kids who come have never been on a farm or know anything about the growing, or cattle, or things like that. We're an agricultural community, and even then they're still not exposed to it like they should be," Steve said.
He says he also enjoys that Pumpkin Paradise affords him the opportunity to give kids their first job.
"One of the things I like is hiring the high school kids to work with us because it's kind of an easy job for them, and they have fun," he said. "Most of them will stay with me all through their high school years."
The Plymell students exited their buses and headed straight to the trebuchet catapult, which Steve will use to launch pumpkins across a field. Older students who have taken part in the annual field trip in years past eagerly anticipate the flying pumpkins while younger students and first-timers finally get to see what the Pumpkin Paradise field trip alumni have been talking about in the days leading up to the trip.
"I think, especially at Plymell, we have a lot of families that are involved in agriculture, and I think it's important for those kids, as well as other kids, to see kind of the background and where we come from agriculturally and that the pumpkins just don't show up automatically at the grocery store," said Plymell Principal Christy Botts. "At breakfast, the kindergartners, because it's their first experience, were like, 'We're going to the pumpkin patch today.' So they were excited. The other kids have all been here because this is a tradition that we do, but especially the kindergartners were excited about their first experience."
In addition to being a fun experience for the students, Plymell teachers like Jessie Hedin, who teaches kindergarten through sixth grade science, uses the experience to reinforce lessons from class.
"We are learning about different things in science," she said. "Our kindergarten, first- and second-graders are learning about soil and rocks, and so up here they are learning about what kind of soil they can find. Our fourth-graders are also learning about soil but a little bit more in-depth. I asked them what kind of soil they could find today which would be best for plants to grow in. Our fifth-graders and sixth-graders are learning about adaptations and modifications, which is good for learning what kind of pumpkins grow best out here in Kansas, so it's really adding to the lessons that they can see and feel and experience the farm."
For students, a trip to the pumpkin patch means an opportunity to run through this year's corn maze that is shaped like bees and flowers, learn about pumpkins, go on a wagon ride through the pasture, and of course, watch the trebuchet catapult.
For teachers, it's an opportunity to reinforce lessons outside the classroom.
As for Steve and Janet Weidner, even after 11 years, it's still a joy to watch people experience their farm.
"The trebuchet catapult, I still get a thrill every time I shoot it," Steve said with a smile. "It's still fun."
Pumpkin Paradise is located nine miles north of Sublette (25 miles south of Garden City) on U.S. Highway 83, then 5 1/2 miles east on Road 100. It will be open through Sunday from 2 to 7 p.m.