When Jerry “The Soda Guy” Kornder was looking toward the fall harvest this year, he wasn’t sure how his limited staff was going to get all the pumpkins and squash out of the fields at Jim’s Apple Farm — the agriculture wing of Minnesota’s Largest Candy Store.
The pumpkin harvest takes place in September and October, when many of the candy store staff — high school students — have returned to class.
“We’ve had issues in the past with finding staff to pick pumpkins,” Kornder said. “During the school year all the kids are in football and cross country and availability becomes really tough. After school it starts getting dark sooner. You’ve got three hours after school, maybe.”
This year, Kornder said the candy store was inspired by the Minnesota Renaissance Festival, which hires student groups to collect trash on the festival grounds and donates the wages directly to the organization. Kornder said applying the model to pumpkin picking was, in some ways, easier than getting candy store staff out in the fields.
“It takes out some of the assembling the personnel portion. You talk to the team and they’ve already got the people, they can contact everybody and take care of that,” Kornder said. “You’ve got a motivated group that wants to earn money for these known goals and that works out really well.”
Six groups, including Jordan robotics and cheer teams and Scott West wrestling, raised a total of $5,012 at the pumpkin patch this season. The cheer team raised $540 on Oct. 13. The robotics team picked pumpkins on Oct. 5 and 12, earning $775 for their organization over the two shifts.
“We had everyone from parents and adults from our families to little brothers and sisters too,” said Aaron Backlund, a junior at Jordan High School and member of Jordan’s robotics team, Techno-Tech.
Backlund said the team is pursuing an additional competition in Duluth this year, and the money earned by picking pumpkins will help contribute to the substantial entry fee.
“Our entry fee alone is upwards of five grand,” Backlund said.
Every pumpkin and squash outside Minnesota’s Largest Candy Store comes from the 20-acre squash and pumpkin patch in Blakely Township. Students, along with some parents and siblings, met staff out at the pumpkin field for six-hour weekend shifts, where they were shown how to clip stems, line up the pumpkins and load them onto trucks.
Midway through the shift, the groups were given a free lunch back at the candy store.
“We had tacos one day, hot beef commercials another day, a lot of hot dogs,” Kornder said. “The store provides lunches for everybody who works here so we extended that to pumpkin pickers.”
Kordner said there were a couple weeks in September where they weren’t able to find groups to work the farm, so there will likely be room for more volunteers next season. If all continues to go well, he indicated there may be potential in the future to extend the program to other agriculture work, like pruning apple trees.