A lot of pumpkins and a little magic

There's something nearly magical that occurs in a pumpkin patch — no Disney fairy godmother required.

"What's amazing is that you see these 3-year-olds, who never would have eaten a vegetable soup before, come back to the classroom after visiting the farm and want to eat the vegetables," said Sandi Breakbush, principal of Grace Christian Schools in Lake Forest.

Each fall season, Grace Christian and other schools across Orange County take hundreds of young students to Tanaka Farms in Irvine.

The 30-acre, family-owned operation near Turtle Rock offers seasonal strawberry, watermelon and vegetable patch tours, in addition to pumpkin-picking fresh off the vine.

"At this age, children learn through their experiences, through their senses," Breakbush said. "They aren't able to pick up a book yet. So when they grab these fuzzy green leaves and pull up from the dirt and there's a carrot all of a sudden, you can you imagine how magical it is for them."

The free pumpkin patch tours started Friday and include wagon rides, a petting zoo and a corn maze. The tours wrap up in the Tanakas' hands-on organic vegetable patch, where guests can harvest green beans, radishes, cauliflower and pumpkins.

"I get a real joy out of seeing the kids with strawberries all over their face and shirts," said Kenny Tanaka, 29, who helps run the farm with his father, Glenn Tanaka, 55. "Parents tell me that they've never seen their kid eat so many fresh vegetables before."

Farming, a once-common but now unusual career choice in Orange County, came naturally to the younger Tanaka. The family's ties to land started in 1941 in La Puente, with Kenny Tanaka's great-grandfather who emigrated from Hiroshima, Japan, in 1910.

The craft has been passed down from one generation to the next, Kenny Tanaka said.

"I don't think it's anything you'd get into unless you were born into it," he said with a laugh.

While the Tanakas once had fields as vast as 300 acres, moving from Riverside County to Huntington Beach over the years as urban sprawl unrolled across the state, the family now maintains the relatively small Tanaka Farms.

The family opened it to tours when Kenny Tanaka was born, realizing it as an invaluable and rapidly disappearing resource to schoolchildren, Glenn Tanaka said.

Even parents, many just one generation removed from relatives who may have farmed, benefit from the visit.

"Seeing the pumpkins growing out there, it's quite an experience," Glenn Tanaka said. "It's a whole field of orange and green — it's breathtaking, really."

Those pumpkins were planted as early as May, although most of the fields were seeded in July. The older pumpkins have time to grow as large as 125 to 150 pounds. They're perfect for the Tanakas' annual Pumpkinmania Weigh-Off contest, scheduled for Oct. 28, with gourds as large as 300 pounds coming from other farms.

"What's nice about coming out to a farm, not just a patch at a grocery store, is coming out to have a good time," Glenn said. "It's an experience coming out to pick up the perfect pumpkin, and everybody has their own eye for what they want and what they're going to do with that pumpkin."

Glenn Tanaka has seen even the most ragtag of cosmetically scarred pumpkins steal the heart of a youngster — much to the dismay of the parents.

"I get to see that moment of excitement on their face, the thrill they get," he said. "Farming has much more meaning for me now."


Twitter: @TheDailyPilot

If You Go

What: Tanaka Farms U-Pick Pumpkin Patch Tours

Where: 5380 ¾ University Road, Irvine

When: 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. through Oct. 31

Cost: Tour admission is free, harvested pumpkins and vegetables are sold on a sliding scale by the pound

Information: (949) 653-2100 or http://www.tanakafarms.com

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