For many families, fall wouldn’t feel complete without a trip to Vala’s Pumpkin Patch in Gretna. Whether it’s bouncing on the giant jumping pillows, enjoying homemade kettle corn, or riding the hayrack to pick the perfect pumpkin, a day at Vala’s means a day filled with fun for the entire family, which is exactly what Jan and Tim Vala hoped to create when they started farming strawberries more than 30 years ago.
What began as a 10-acre u pick strawberry operation quickly transformed after Tim planted too many pumpkins their second year into farming and sold them out the back of his truck. The next year he hooked a hayrack up to his tractor and drove customers into the field so they could pick pumpkins themselves. “It was a slow start,” Jan said. “Over the years we would add a few things here and there, and acquire a little more land.” That 10-acres is now more than 400, with 55-acres of pumpkins and gourds that Tim still farms himself every year.
Today, Vala’s hires 725 employees for its season, which runs from Sept. 18-Oct. 31st, and welcomes around 200,000 visitors. Jan and Tim are delighted that is has truly become a family business, with all three of their daughters and son-in-law helping in various areas. “Each one has taken a different aspect of the farm and made it their own,” Jan said. It’s a big help to her and Tim, who are on site every day during the season, which is necessary to ensure that one of the country’s largest farm and orchard attractions runs smoothly.
Now on its third generation of families who come to Vala’s every year, Jan said they enjoy coming up with new ideas to incorporate. Throughout the year their family visits other similar operations around the country. They are also members of the North America Farmers Direct Marketing Association and the Association of Music Parks and Attractions which hosts conferences and trade shows that they attend every year. “We also work with an organization that designs and implements mazes,” Jan said. This year Vala’s expanded its corn maze from 2 to 4-acres to accommodate demand.
Other new features for the 2015 season include the barnyard ropes course and zip line, an improved pumpkin mine, additional funnel cake and turkey leg concessions, a coin toss to raise money for the Nebraska Make a Wish Foundation, and a second set of permanent restrooms by the pie barn, which is a big undertaking but a much needed and appreciated addition. They also brought back the chicken pot pies that were a huge hit and sold out in the first month last year.
The Vala’s work the farm all year long, winterizing buildings, repairing exhibits, and implementing new projects during the winter months, then planting pumpkins in the spring and summer months. However, much of the preparation happens in the weeks leading up to the opening and during the season. And Tim and Jan aren’t slowing down. In fact, they recently planted 9,000 apple trees with more than 30 varieties and will plan another 9,000 so they can offer apple picking to families during the fall season as well.
“Our philosophy from the very beginning was to have a place where parents and children could do things together,” Tim said. “So before we implement something new, we always ask ourselves if it meets that criteria.” That’s also why they charge a general admission rather than a pay per activity model. “We want parents to play graveyard gold with their kids, or go through the spook shack with them, rather than just pay for the child to do it by themselves,” Tim added.
Fostering that family time is first and foremost for the Vala’s. During staff meetings, they hand out M&Ms to employees, with the reminder that they are all there to help create “Magical Moments” for families. “Everyone is so busy these days, and family time is valuable,” Tim said. “We’re honored that families choose to spend that time with us, so we want to make it as nice as we can for them.”