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Family pumpkin patch keeps expanding

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The Lazy Acres Pick-A-Pumpkin Patch near Bemidji has gotten a little corny this fall.

In its second year, the pumpkin patch has expanded to offer a four-acre corn maze, including a twilight "bring-a-flashlight" version.

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"The night light maze is really good," said staff member Sara Lembcke Saturday. "We had 45-50 last night."

It takes about half an hour to walk through the maze, she said. A kid-sized version is also available.

Emily Risberg, 8, and her parents, Deb and Ed, emerged from the big maze Saturday afternoon with their "passports," which guided them through the maze through activities that helped them know which turns to make. They did word scrambles, songs and cheers, among others activities.

"I like it," Emily said enthusiastically.

From 40 to 400

Buster Donat is the man behind the land, along with his daughter-in-law, Sue, and grandchildren, Mike, Mark, Matt, Mitch and Mindy. Their father, Buster's son Larry, died three years ago at the age of 56. He worked with Buster at several businesses for 30 years.

"It's been great ... something to do with my family, after my husband passed away," Sue said. "My children have really kept me from being lonely."

She said she feels the people of the community enjoy the pumpkin patch. "We try to make it a family gathering where families can enjoy it. We enjoy the families. I enjoy my family and we enjoy everyone else's families."

"You wouldn't even know it was a dairy barn," Buster said of the pumpkin patch's store, which years ago was home to his dairy cows. Today, it's a cozy building where people can buy pumpkins and gifts as well as treats from a small café.

"It's great. It's fantastic," he said. "Four years ago it stood quite empty. Now it's a joy to the community.

"This community is mine," said the 85-year-old Donat. Originally from Todd County, he has lived on his land since 1947 and served on the Helga Township Board for 24 years.

He joked that his wife, Neda, bought the original 40 acres -- which has since expanded to 480 -- while he was in the service "so I wouldn't loaf when I got out." He was discharged Nov. 4, 1946, and they moved to the land on Jan. 7. His wife died in 1969 at the age of 42.

"I consider the people of Helga Township and the surrounding people of the Bemidji area to be my friends," Buster said. "I've been here all these years and they've been very good to me."

Mike, a former teacher, lives in Minneapolis and comes home every weekend in the fall to work at the pumpkin patch. The others all live nearby. Buster, Sue and Mindy live in the house on the premises, Matt lives an eighth of a mile away, Mark lives half a mile away and Mitch lives near Grace Lake.

Sue's vision for the pumpkin patch is simple fun. It keeps her busy, but "it's good busy," she said. "It keeps me in shape."

"It's work, but it's fun work," Mike said.

"It's nice to be able to do something with it," Mindy said.

"We're definitely procrastinators across the board, but when it comes time to get things done, we're pretty good at rallying together," Matt said. "We got this done."

The pumpkin patch also has a staff of about 10.

"They're awesome," Mindy said. "We can't do this without them. We want them to have as much fun as the people around."

Sara, who was Mindy's college roommate, is a staff member at the pumpkin patch. During the school year, she's a sixth-grade teacher in Brainerd. She comes to Bemidji every weekend during the fall to work at the patch.

"I helped start it with the whole family," she said, including painting many of the props.

Mike, a former teacher, enjoys the educational aspect of the pumpkin patch, which offers field trips to students.

Mindy said about 600 students will come through the patch this year. She led a group of 90 Cass Lake first-graders Thursday and 100 second-graders from Lincoln School Friday.

The pumpkin patch opened Sept. 15 and will close after Halloween. Two acres are devoted to raising pumpkins. Lembcke said the patch grew 14 varieties of pumpkins this year.

"This is the first year with the corn maze," Mike said. "There's nothing like it in the area."

He added that Mindy and Matt planted the corn for the maze, with guidance from a company that specializes in corn mazes.

"There's so much that goes into making a corn maze," Mike said.

He added that many people have requested a haunted maze.

"It would be fun to do it, at least for Halloween," Mindy said.

The maze will have a different design next fall and will be bigger, perhaps 10 acres, perhaps more.

The pumpkin patch's playground is not your typical swings-and-slide model. This one offers a "corn box," surrounded by small hay bales, instead of a sandbox. Its slides are made of hay, with landing zones also of hay. Hayrides, a petting zoo and other features are nearby.

New this year is "pumpkin chunking," in which chunks of pumpkins are catapulted high and far to the delight those manning the giant slingshots.

"Adults love it," Mike said.

From the looks of it, so do kids, as well as staff.

"Whenever there's not a line, I can go out and do it," said Frank Waller, a student at Oak Hills Christian College from Champlain, Minn., who was staffing the pumpkin chunking attraction Saturday.

Also new is the barrel train, a popular attraction whose cars are made from plastic barrels.

The Pick-A-Pumpkin Patch is open Saturdays and Sundays, as well as MEA days Oct 11-12 and 18-19. The night maze is open from 5-9 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday. For directions, rates or more details, visit pickapumpkinpatch.com or call 751-1312.

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