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Clinton farm market mixes entertainment with seasonal produce and plants

Thursday, October 11, 2001

By Gretchen McKay, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

In the early '60s, when Sonny Janoski was just getting into farming, it was easy to satisfy customers come the month of October. About all the grower and his wife, JoAnn, had to do was pile some pumpkins on the display tables, along with the Indian corn and gourds. For most shoppers, a simple jack-o'-lantern or two was enough to mark the season.

Rebekah VanWalsum, 7, of Moon, picked her pumpkin from the Janoski Farm pumpkin patch in Clinton on Saturday. (Gabor Degre, Post-Gazette)

Harvest fun times roll at local farms

Those days are gone.

Janoski still sells thousands of pumpkins each fall, of course, this year for 29 cents a pound. But like most people in the fruit and vegetable business, he also offers customers what can only be described as a total Halloween "experience" at his 39-year-old farm market in Clinton, Findlay.

This month marks the 12th season for Janoski's Farm Pumpkinland, a family-oriented collection of games and activities.

Tucked on several acres behind the sprawling red-and-white striped market, Pumpkinland features a petting zoo, pony rides, straw jump and a corn maze. Visitors can also take a tractor-drawn hayride to the Great Pumpkin Patch, where they're able to choose for themselves the perfect jack-o'-lantern from among the hundreds of Howdend Biggies, Merlins or ghostly white Lumina pumpkins scattered across the field. (For the uninitiated, these are all varieties of jack-o'-lantern pumpkins grown by the Janoskis.) You can eat a carving pumpkin, Janoski says, but they are stringier and more watery. A better choice are cooking pumpkins such as Baby Pam and Mystic.

Part of Pumpkinland's success, says Janoski, is the desire of the public -- most live far from the country -- to see what life on a working farm is like. Today's consumer also expects a little something "extra" in exchange for patronage, namely, a little fun.

"People want to be entertained," says the 65-year-old Janoski, a bear of a man who grew up on the Mt. Lebanon farm started by his grandparents in the 1890s. In fact, the phenomenon has inspired a new phrase among the farm market crowd: entertainment farming.

But don't bother the children with all that. To them, Pumpkinland is simply a cool, laid-back place to make friends with a baby goat or llama, get lost (sort of) in a row of cornstalks, or prove to your parents you can carry a 20-pound pumpkin to the car without breaking off the stem.

 
  Carve with confidence

You've made it to the pumpkin patch. Now what? A short and fat pumpkin, or a tall and skinny one? It depends on your intended design. Whatever the shape, make sure you choose a pumpkin with a "carvable" face, one that is relatively free of bumps, soft spots and dents. The stem should also be between 1 and 2 inches long.

Remember, too, that lighter-colored pumpkins are softer and therefore easier to carve. But they won't last as long as darker varieties.

Some other carving tips:

Frost, sun and insects hurry the decomposition process. Therefore, keep your pumpkin outside or in a cool place until you're ready to carve it.

Kitchen spoons bend. So consider cleaning the "pumpkin brains" out of the shell with an ice cream scoop or small metal measuring cup.

Scrape the inside of the shell to 1 inch thick -- it will make carving easier.

Know what you're going for before picking up the knife. Sketch the design on the shell with a nail or pencil or trace it on using carbon paper. Not creative? Download a free design from www.jack-o-lantern.com or www.pumpkinnook.com.

Small hands have trouble with curves, angles and multiple cuts. So keep it simple.

Avoid mistakes by carving slowly. A special pumpkin knife, available at grocery stores and garden centers, works best (it bends). Cut too deep? Attach broken pieces with a toothpick or straight pin.

Secure the candle into the bottom of the shell with a toothpick.

Seal the cuts with a light coating of petroleum jelly. It will prevent your jack-o'-lantern from drying out. Also, keep candle time to a minimum -- the flame cooks the pumpkin from the inside out.

Bring a shriveled jack-o'-lantern back to life by soaking it in a bucket of water overnight.

-- Gretchen McKay

   
 

Tonna Pawlos of Crafton makes it a point to visit Pumpkinland each October. "It's fun for the kids," she says.

Four-year-old Maria, snuggled against the crisp October afternoon in a fuzzy pink vest, would agree. Asked which activity she enjoyed most, the preschooler looks up from painting a bright-yellow smile on a pumpkin at one of the long folding tables in the concession stand, and purses her lips. Hmmm. Riding out to the pumpkin patch or exploring the gently spooky haunted barn?

In the end, it's a tossup; "I like it all," she exclaims.

Farther down the hill in the middle of the 3-acre corn maze, Chris Lange of Moon laughs as he tries to keep up with 2-year-old Brayden, who's racing across the broad, straw-covered path in hot pursuit of sister Carissa, 5, and pals Lucas and Lindsay Brooks, also of Moon.

Rounding a bend, the rosy-cheeked toddler stumbles and pitches head-first in the 7-foot-tall stalks, where Janoski had cut the shape of a tractor with a riding mower when the corn was just a foot high. The toddler erupts in giggles. "He's off again!" hollers his father.

Evolving fun farm

When Janoski bought the 80-acre farm nearly 40 years ago, he grew the crops of his childhood and sold them wholesale in the Strip: sweet corn, tomatoes, beans. A year later, he built the farm market and expanded his business to include retail.

In 1969, when homeowners across America embarked on a flower-planting craze, he added greenhouses for annuals and bedding plants.

As he farmed from dawn to dark, seven days a week, over the next three decades, his business -- like his family -- steadily grew. By the '90s, Janoski's greenhouses were producing 10,000 trays of annuals a year, 15,000 hanging baskets and 50,000 poinsettias, as well as hundreds of bushels of fresh fruits and vegetables. And three of his four children, as well as their spouses, were among the 35 full-time staff.

When Janoski first opened Pumpkinland in 1990, it featured just a small corn maze, in addition to the petting zoo and pumpkin patch; the haunted house was nothing more than a black plastic-covered greenhouse. As demand grew, so did the number and size of activities. In 1997, the family built a permanent haunted barn; this year brought the straw jump and expanded maze.

While it was popular from the get-go, things really took off about five years ago, says Janoski.

"It's something else -- Halloween's as big a holiday as Christmas anymore," he says. "And nobody knows why."

It's not unusual for the farm to draw close to 20,000 school children in the five weeks leading up to Halloween. Depending on the weather, another 1,000 to 1,500 will gather for the chance to soak in Pumpkinland's old-fashioned, low-key atmosphere.

'Watching things grow'

Janoski starts the pumpkins from seed in the greenhouse on June 1 and plants them 10 days later via machine over 30 acres. Because they're drip irrigated, lack of rain isn't usually a problem. In a good year, the farm will harvest 400 tons of pumpkins ranging in size from a mere 8 ounces to more than 300 pounds; 90 percent are carving pumpkins. Many are grown at the Clinton farm; others are trucked in from Sonny's two other properties, a 105-acre farm in Hanover Township, Washington County, and a 50-acre farm in Beaver County.

Happy children and their equally excited parents, though, aren't the only customers. Both groundhogs and deer consider the big orange orbs ripe for the picking. So to lessen the damage, "we just plant some for them, right along the edges."

For Janoski, the best part of Pumpkinland is watching the children's faces as they pet a baby cow or select a miniature Jack-be-Little pumpkin for their dining room table. One example is 11-year-old Danny McGee of Swissvale. He practically glows, he's so thrilled by the sparkly black widow spider a Janoski staffer painted on his right cheek.

Parents, too, look in high spirits as they sip hot cider with their kids in the concession stand or dip French fries prepared by Boy Scout Troop 496 into blobs of ketchup.

Even teeth stained pink from cotton candy or a candied apple elicit smiles. Sure, they're future customers. But this grandfather of 12 also likes the fact that kids can find so much enjoyment in pumpkins.

"They way they react to the farm scene, it's great," says Janoski. "There's just something about watching things grow."

A restaurant in the works

All the business isn't seasonal.

In 1996, Janoski's added a garden center and bakery; 1999 ushered in the second-floor country gift shop. Originally intended to simply offer customers garden-themed knickknacks, it now carries everything from wind chimes and greeting cards to quilts, a huge selection of Boyds bears and collectible resins and porcelain garden accessories.

In keeping with the farm's tractor theme (Sonny's massive collection of toy tractors sits behind the market in display cases mounted atop a wagon), the shop also features a line of Farmall and John Deere wagons and tractors.

"We kind of got off the beaten track," says Janoski's daughter Diane Swimkosky, who manages the shop. "But people kept asking for things."

Come March, Sonny and JoAnn will unveil their latest farm-related venture in a small building across the street: Janoski's Country Farm Restaurant.

"I know," says a grinning JoAnn from her post in the bakery, standing guard over two giant convection ovens full of pumpkin pie. "People keep asking us, 'When are you going to retire?' "

She chuckles, causing her wooden jack-o'-lantern earrings to jingle. "When does a farmer ever retire?"

If Janoski has his way, it will be a while. Despite open-heart surgery in 1994 and two heart attacks in the last 11 months (he suffered the latest just eight weeks ago), this farmer isn't slowing down any time soon. "I never think about my age," he says.

Besides, farming is all this gentle giant -- the only one of six children to follow in his parents' footsteps -- knows.

"It's right here in these veins," he says, pulling up the sleeve of his faded denim shirt with a large calloused hand and pointing to a muscled forearm. "I can't get it out."

Janoski's Pumpkinland, 1714 Route 30, Clinton, is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. every Saturday and Sunday through Oct. 28. The $4.50 admission price includes all activities, including a tractor-drawn hayride to the pumpkin patch. Refreshments are available, but visitors also can bring picnic lunches.

For directions, call 724-899-3438 or visit the farm's Web site at www.janoskis.com


Related Recipes:

Pumpkin Flan

Beef And Pumpkin Stew

Great Pumpkin Cookies

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