Located 2 miles north of Harrisonville, Missouri, soybean farmer and small-business owner Matt Moreland is tirelessly dedicated to agritourism. His advocacy has transformed what began as a 3-acre pumpkin patch into an engaging learning opportunity for all ages.
Moreland, age 38, grew up on a diversified farm, raising dairy and beef cattle, corn and soybeans. In May of 2008, the fourth-generation farmer returned from his time at the University of Missouri–Columbia to work on his family’s farm and expand their dairy operation. However, in that year, life and the economy had different plans.
While the Moreland family, along with the rest of the country, searched for new sources of income, Matt’s answer was simple: pumpkins.
From Patch to Plate
“Initially, our plan was to grow them for the wholesale market,” said Moreland, with a giant grin brightening his face. “We failed miserably. I don’t think we could have done it any worse.”
Nevertheless, when Moreland had the opportunity to buy the farm at which he now resides in 2013, he couldn’t help but recall the leftover seeds taunting him from the freezer in his garage. For a second time, Moreland planted pumpkins and crossed his fingers, hoping for a better year. The crop did not disappoint.
“We had more pumpkins than we knew what to do with,” said Moreland. “I spent hours driving to any and every store to pitch my pumpkins. Each time, I was given the same answer, ‘No.’”
Undeterred and still hoping to make a profit off the bumper crop, Matt returned home and set the pumpkins back in the very patch from which he picked them. Without much forethought, the farmer wrote a sign that announced the creation of a u-pick pumpkin patch and set it on the side of the road. As a “last ditch effort” to get rid of pumpkins, Red Barn Ranch was formed on a random Wednesday in October.
One Facebook page and 1,500 followers later, the family prepared for opening weekend.
“We weren’t sure what to expect. But when the first car drove up, from over an hour away, I couldn’t believe it,” said Moreland. “Four days earlier, my business hadn’t even existed, and we were incredibly busy from the get-go.”
Matt noticed the u-pick attendees spent most of their visit exploring the farm rather than picking pumpkins and leaving as he had initially expected. While they may have been looking for the typical activities one would normally find at a pumpkin patch, Moreland wondered how he could make his new business be about more than just pumpkins. He knew that this was the perfect opportunity to help bridge the gap between producer and consumer while giving them a true hands-on experience that would help them learn about production agriculture.
“That first weekend, I would find myself having conversations with parents about hormones and antibiotics in their food,” said Moreland. “Typically, it would begin with one adult picking up a cotton hull and asking another if that was what marshmallows were made from. By the end, there would always be a crowd listening. Most of them had never heard a farmer’s perspective before.”
From that moment on, Moreland made a commitment that every activity would be designed with the purpose of educating.
“At the end of the weekend, I knew that this was what I was meant to be doing,” said Moreland. “I wasn’t supposed to sell wholesale pumpkins. I was supposed to bring consumers into our way of life by offering attractions that showcased the activities that I grew up doing on the farm.”
Now, a regular day at the patch includes soy donuts, a petting zoo, corn maze and cannon, a pasture full of grazing beef cattle, endless photo taking opportunities and, of course, all the pumpkins you can pick.
Moreland and Red Barn Ranch also play host to a more formal education system, LC’s Farm School. Each year more than 75 students, ages 3 to 5, enroll in the program from August through May to experience the fully accredited, agriculture-based preschool.
“We can’t afford every child the opportunity to grow up on a farm,” said Matt. “However, from its genesis, Farm School’s goal has always been to grant our students the benefits they would gain from being exposed to those environments.”
Not to be confused with a run-of-the mill day camp, Farm School is owned by a former elementary school teacher and incorporates curriculum that promotes a positive learning environment through nature-based experiences. Students feed livestock, plant gardens, collect eggs and harvest pumpkins from the vine while completing preschool academic standards in and outside the classroom.
“Every day is an outside day,” said Leslie Culpepper, Farm School owner. “Our time together encourages imagination and creativity and promotes a love of learning. Our lessons are built around the seasonal changes on the farm as we encompass preschool academics.”
While Matt is not an official staff member of LC’s Farm School, the landowner has exhausted countless hours to make it successful. In the past, Moreland has worked with county officials to ensure the first-ofits-kind facility is up to code and is in the process of expanding classroom capacity to accommodate more students.
The program has become incredibly popular with urban and suburban families, sometimes booking out years in advance.
“I would never want a lack of resources or bureaucracy to get in the way of a program like this,” said Moreland. “Hundreds of students have gone through the program, and I know better than anybody that the best way to share agriculture’s story is through the younger generations.”
Ten years since its inception, Red Barn Ranch has grown to be much more than the original 3-acre patch. Thousands of urban and suburban families have learned from a farmer’s perspective for the first time while making memories that will last a lifetime. Hundreds of Farm School students have become young advocates for our industry.
However, none of this would have been possible had Matt Moreland not taken a chance and bet on pumpkins.