Illinois Agritourism Attractions Patch Things Up
In 1866, English immigrant Abel Heap settled in Kendall County with his wife, Elizabeth, and established the Heap family farm. Nearly 150 years later, Abel’s descendants continue the agriculture tradition on the same tract of land. But these days, the family shares its farm with thousands of visitors who travel each year to Heap’s Giant Pumpkin Farm in Minooka, one of northern Illinois’ most popular agritourism attractions.
Abel’s great-great-grandson, Kevin Heap, started selling pumpkins in the front yard of the family farm while a freshman in high school. After graduating from Purdue University in 2009 with a degree in agribusiness, Heap returned home and converted a plot of land into a U-pick attraction. Fifteen seasons after starting the pumpkin stand, Heap’s Giant Pumpkin Farm spans more than 160 acres and features a 25-acre pumpkin patch that grows more than 90 varieties of pumpkins, gourds and squash.
If You Go...
Address: 4853 U.S. Hwy. 52, Minooka, IL 60447
Dates: Sept. 9-Oct. 31
Hours: Daily from 9:30 a.m.-6:30 p.m.
Admission: Free; tickets for specific attractions sold separately
Contact: heapsgiantpumpkinfarm.com, (815) 475-7373
“When you have something like this, you’ve got to have a passion for it, and Kevin definitely has that,” says Kaylee Shell, farm manager. “Each year, he started growing more pumpkins and adding more things. He went to college after high school, came back and decided this is what he wanted to do. And he’s been focused on it ever since – adding something new every year, so it has grown into the attraction it is today.”
From the second week in September through Halloween, visitors to Heap’s can take a hayride, try their luck at navigating the farm’s massive corn maze or the less challenging soybean maze, pick a pumpkin, see farm animals, browse the shelves of locally made products, or grab a bite to eat.
“We sell jams and jellies, apple cider doughnuts, and pumpkin cookies from a local bakery. We also serve pork burgers from a local pig farmer. We try to source everything we sell and serve from producers right around us,” Shell says. “When people come out, they get a pork burger and a pumpkin cookie. That’s kind of our specialty.”
The farm welcomes school groups from the area. While the kids certainly enjoy climbing Milo’s play castle (named for Kevin’s grandfather), tumbling over hay bales and wading through corn boxes in the Heaps O’ Fun Barn, Shell says they also focus on education.
“We have a lot of schools from the area come out and learn about pumpkins and agriculture as a whole. They get a chance to touch an ear of corn, pet farm animals for the first time and ask us questions,” Shell says. “Most people never get the chance to go out to a farm and see how their food is grown.”
Heap’s Giant Pumpkin Farm represents a growing number of agritourism attractions cropping up, not only in Illinois but across the country. In fact, between 2007 and 2012, the number of U.S. agritourism opportunities grew by nearly 30 percent.
Sue Hronik of the Chicago and Beyond Regional Tourism Office says diversity in the kinds of attractions accounts for much of the growth.
“Agritourism is growing because it encompasses so many different types of attractions, from farmers’ markets and restaurants that use farm-fresh ingredients to winery tours, apple orchards and pumpkin patches,” Hronik says. “In this part of the country – northern Illinois – agritourism is a selling point and something that attracts visitors from all over the country and the world.”
The Chicago and Beyond website features an entire section on agritourism with listings for U-pick farms, wineries, pumpkin patches, county fairs and festivals, and a comprehensive directory of regional farmers’ markets.
“People around us are always looking for fun and different things to do, and certainly a trip to a pumpkin patch plays right into that,” Shell says. “We’re not too far from Chicago, so we get people from the city, but we also draw visitors from the rural areas as well. You get new people every year who drive past and say, ‘I never knew you were out here. I’m glad I stopped.’ We’ve found that the more fun we provide, the more people we attract, so we try to provide a fun and educational experience each year and continue to add to the new activities.”