BENTON — For about 30 years, people from Penn Yan, Yates County and beyond have descended on a large, Pre-Emption Road pumpkin patch to pick out decorations for the Halloween season.
Many of those folks have become familiar faces to Gary, Mary and Mike Lilyea of Lilyea Farms, a local mainstay since the late 1930s.
“We see people who have been coming here for 20 years or more, every year,” Mary said.
One of their loyal customers is Chris Hansen, one of the owners of Climbing Bines Hop Farm & Brewery in Torrey. He was a classmate of Mike Lilyea at Penn Yan Academy.
“Chris used to come here with his father (Bruce),” Mike said. “Now Chris brings his kids every year.”
“We have people tell us they came here as kids and now they are bringing their kids,” Gary added. “Some people who used to bring their kids here are now bringing their grandkids.”
Lilyea Farms traces its roots to 1937.
Elmer Lilyea, who grew up in the Dresden area, bought about 200 acres on Pre-Emption Road, just outside Penn Yan. Gary, a 1967 Penn Yan Academy graduate, farmed the land with his father until Elmer passed away in the 1980s.
“We expanded a lot over the years,” Gary said. “Now, we have about 1,500 acres, including some rented land. We grow corn, soybeans, wheat — the stuff you usually see on a big farm.”
When he was a child, Gary started growing pumpkins as a 4-H project and sold them to Comstock Foods for pie filling. It was something he passed on to his son at a young age.
“Mike started doing it when he was about 8 or 9,” Gary said. “We grew the pumpkins nearby, and he picked them and brought them up to the front yard. We would put them out along with a coffee can, and people would put money in the can and take pumpkins. We had so many people stopping by, we had to put out a larger coffee can.”
Mike Lilyea, 39, who graduated from Penn Yan Academy in 1997, said they decided to start the U-pick patch due to increased demand. The patch is on an 8- to 9-acre tract of land north of the main farm.
The process is pretty simple. People drive onto the land, pick their own pumpkins and take as many as they want. The cost is the same — $2 per pumpkin, no matter the size — and people pay on the honor system, although there is usually someone on hand to make change.
“We have some people who come with pickup trucks, get a truckload of pumpkins and go home,” Mike said.
The Lilyeas explained that they field some interesting questions and deal with some “situations.”
“People don’t realize you have to plant every year to get pumpkins. They think the pumpkins just keep coming back on their own,” Gary said with a smile. “We hear a lot of good stories. We don’t really have any bad stories, other than people getting stuck when it’s muddy. We once had a sign saying, ‘Don’t drive here,’ and someone did. We had to tow them out.”
In addition to pumpkins, the Lilyeas sell gourds and Indian corn.
“It’s a good business, but a lot of work, and we don’t make a lot of money on it,” Gary said. “Some years we lose money.”
“We do it for the kids,” Mike added. “We started this year on Sept. 15 and will be open until we run out of pumpkins, which is usually right before Halloween.
“We’re not really doing this to make money, and we are pretty informal. If people want to bring their dogs, that’s fine.”
“Sometimes, people will put notes in the can with their money, saying they are glad we keep the patch open and the cost down for the kids,” Mary said. “People would be heartbroken if we didn’t have the pumpkin patch.”