- Associated Press - Saturday, October 15, 2016

SNOHOMISH, Wash. (AP) - The slightest breeze made the corn whisper.

The rustling of the 10-foot stalks was broken by voices, laughter, singing and the occasional scream from elsewhere on the farm. Couples moved through the maze, heads pressed together to read the map by flashlight. A group of teens chased each other until a woman in a bright orange security vest discouraged their running and yelling. Groups of friends tried the left path, then the right, only to find themselves going in circles in the field.

It was a little before 10 p.m. and Carleton Farm was wide awake, reported The Daily Herald (http://bit.ly/2e4NWZN).

A line formed for the zombie paintball ride while other visitors bought tickets for the Haunted Swamp or the no-scare flashlight maze, both set in dark fields downhill from a big red barn labeled the “Pumpkin Lounge.”

Carleton was open to the public. Seven miles away, the crew at Stocker Farms welcomed friends and family for a dress rehearsal of the nighttime activities there. Workers spent hours getting ready. They donned protective gear and zombie costumes for Stocker’s paintball attraction or headed to an old metal mobile home in the cornfield to be fitted with costumes and grisly make-up. A teen with fake bloody bandages around his eyes made a quick phone call and a man dressed as a crazy clown paused to say hello to a pair of actors with their faces painted in ghostly shades of gray.

There are nearly 100 people employed by the haunted attractions at Stocker Farms this year. It’s a lot different than when Dan Orme-Doutre, the farm’s haunt director, started working there a decade ago.

“We were just actors in a cornfield,” he said. “I thought, ‘This could be huge.’”

Carleton and Stocker are two of seven farms that teamed up to make Snohomish Valley “Pumpkin Central” in October. The partnership started 15 years ago, when a few farmers pooled their money to advertise their pumpkins and corn mazes in the Seattle area. That became the annual Snohomish Valley Festival of Pumpkins.

The festival is a foray into the burgeoning business of agritourism. It also is how these former dairy farms stay afloat as small-acreage producers in an economy that favors mass production.

At Carleton Farm, festivities from the end of September until Halloween make up about 70 percent of the annual income, said Darren Carleton, a third-generation farmer.

Others in the partnership say at least half of their income is from October events. Most also have wedding venues, berry patches, Christmas trees, farm stands and booths at farmers markets.

The farmers spend months prepping for October. Planning starts in January, field work somewhere around April. Corn mazes are designed and grown, and miles of winding dirt paths cleared. Pumpkins are planted. Open fields turn into parking lots for hundreds of cars. There’s something new each year: a giant slide, a zip-line, a sing-along, a haunted hayride.

The festival can be lucrative, but it’s limited. From Oct. 1 until Halloween, pumpkins gain a seasonal magic that comes with being in demand. After Halloween, a pumpkin’s just a pumpkin.

Since the farmers can’t add weeks to their season, they add hours to their days.

Five of the seven farms in the Snohomish Valley partnership now offer after-dark attractions. They’ve added fresh scares and mixed in fright-free activities to supplement the organized chaos of “the haunts,” as Keith Stocker of Stocker Farms calls them.

Stocker Farms has an alter ego, “Stalker Farms,” the hub of its three haunted attractions. One is a hayride and the others are set in the cornfield.

There are websites with creepy stories and videos to pique people’s interest. The elaborate after-dark activities draw thousands of people on the weekends.

A different crowd

It all started in 2004 with two teens in a corn maze. One wore a Tigger costume, the other a gorilla suit.

“We told people the field was haunted that night, and it was so crazy popular,” said Stocker, a fourth-generation farmer. “By the end of the night, those two teenagers were running for their lives.”

The haunts play on people’s paranoia. Dark spaces, fog, flashing lights, sudden movements and sounds. Not to mention a generous amount of gore.

Carleton Farms added night activities about 10 years ago. In the past five years, Carleton’s noticed that there are more after-dark visitors.

“It attracts a whole different crowd,” he said.

Darkness brings out teens and young adults. Carleton added zombie paintball last year, the third Snohomish Valley farm to do so. Now paintballers can opt to be dropped off out in the dark field, give up their paintball guns and flee a horde of zombies that chase them back to the barn.

Thomas Family Farm was one of the first in the valley to offer a zombie paintball ride, said Cole Wolfer, who has worked at the farm since the attraction was launched four years ago. Though Carleton and Stocker also have paintball, it hasn’t dented the turnout at Thomas, Wolfer said.

“Everybody that knows about it knows us pretty well,” he said. “It’s just an all-around good time.”

The farm also offers a flashlight corn maze with 3 miles of paths and six fire pits to rent, the Nightmare on 9 haunted house and a beer garden.

It takes a lot of work to scare mobs of people and do so professionally, but it’s fun for the farmers and their teams.

“I’m not really the type of person who likes to watch horror films, but when I started to design our Haunted Swamp it was kind of fun,” Carleton said. “It’s a whole different experience scaring someone compared to being scared.”

Weathering the storm

A farm doesn’t need frights to have nighttime fun, said Sandee Acevedo, who works at Craven Farm. The farm’s 15-acre Alice in Pumpkinland corn maze turns into a no-scare flashlight maze after the sun goes down. The Cravens expanded into after-dark activities two or three years ago.

Craven Farm specializes in children’s entertainment. All of the farms bring their own flavor to the festival, Acevedo said.

Concessions are popular, too, said Anjie Williams, who runs the country store at Bob’s Corn & Pumpkin Farm. There’s hot apple cider, doughnuts, caramel apples and roasted sweet corn fresh from the field. At night, people can rent a fire pit in the corn maze and have treats brought to them for roasting. There’s no better setting for ghost stories.

Rain and wind can discourage marshmallow roasting and maze wandering. October nights in western Washington aren’t known for nice weather. Farmers were working in the rain long before they opened corn mazes and haunted hay rides. They have other lines of business year-round.

“You try to be diversified a little bit so you can weather storms in different parts of your business,” Stocker said. “And in farming, we mean that literally.”

There’s more of a disconnect now than ever before between the people who grow food and the people who consume it, Stocker said. Getting folks on the farm to pick a pumpkin or scream through a haunted maze lets them see the fields where their meals start.

Most agritourism activities on Washington farms began within the past two decades, according to a 2011 study from Washington State University Extension. Researchers surveyed 116 farmers and found that the majority chose to add agritourism to their existing farm work to bolster income and teach people about agriculture. Despite diverse crops and significant acreage dedicated to growing, farm profits have been declining since 1997 while production expenses have increased.

Nearly a third of the farmers surveyed have pumpkin patches and roughly a fifth have corn or hay mazes, according to the study. Three Washington counties are known for pumpkins: Snohomish, King and Thurston. Other areas have berry picking, flowers or wine tours. Roughly two-thirds of the farmers said they earn more than $50,000 a year from agritourism.

Something new

Stocker calls the increase in agritourism for Snohomish Valley unprecedented.

An estimated 250,000 people come to the Festival of Pumpkins each year.

“Agritainment,” Stocker said, has brought something new to farming.

“It fills my personal passion for sharing what we do with others,” he said. “It’s very rewarding to have your customer come out to your property. It makes it feel more real.”

The Stockers have had the same “How Tall this Fall” sign up for nearly 20 years. Parents with photos of themselves as children measured against that sign now bring their own kids. Hundreds of families in the region have fond memories on Snohomish Valley farms, Stocker said.

With the daytime fun and nighttime scares, no one ages out of the fall festival. Little ones like the hay rides, teens and young adults gravitate toward haunted attractions, and parents or grandparents enjoy coming back with families in tow.

Darren Carleton gave instructions on a Friday night as riders boarded a hayride bound for a field he told them was infested with zombies: Stay seated. Leave reloading the paintball guns to the professionals. Don’t let the zombies get you.

Reid Carleton, Darren’s father and a farmer of 50 years, gathered food trays from the brightly lit tables in the Pumpkin Lounge. He drives the zombie hayride on Saturdays. He’s milked cows and grown a lot of vegetables, especially corn.

Dealing with zombies is a relatively new part of the job.

That Friday night wasn’t too busy, but he expects the crowds to get bigger as Halloween nears. Agritourism has changed farming, he said. He’s not sure yet if the market will become over-saturated. He hopes not. For now, pumpkin season and all of the visitors that come with it keep his farm going.

“We have 30 days to make a living,” he said.

If you go

Dates and hours vary from farm to farm for daytime and after-dark attractions. For details, including directions, prices and lists of activities, go to FestivalofPumpkins.org. Whatever farm and activity you choose, dress for the weather in sturdy shoes, long pants and a jacket. Bring a flashlight and extra batteries for nighttime corn mazes. Haunted attractions may not be appropriate for children.

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Information from: The Daily Herald, http://www.heraldnet.com

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