Schnepf Farms busily prepares for Pumpkin Party

Mark Schnepf stands on a path of one of the two corn mazes he’s prepared for Schnepf Farms’ annual Pumpkin & Chili Party, which begins Oct. 1. (David Minton/Tribune Staff Photographer)

Hillbilly Bob’s Pig Races? Yes, Hillbilly Bob is a real guy, and they really do race pigs – which are said to enjoy the experience but like the Oreo cookies they get at the end even more.

The pigs, Swingin’ Lady Bugz, hayrides, a petting zoo, the Stuntmasters dog show and a brand-new ropes course, are just of the few of the more high-profile attractions that Schnepf Farms is working frantically to ready for its 26th annual Pumpkin and Chili Party that starts next Saturday, Oct. 1.

The Flying Farmers ride is almost ready to take flight, too, as it joins other attractions like the classic Honeybee Adventure ride and a rock-climbing wall.

Some of the attractions harken to farm owner Mark Schnepf’s family legacy.

“My dad had an airplane. We had an airstrip here on the farm,” he said. “My mom flew as well.”

To honor what was once a big part of the Farm’s way of doing business, a carousel ride with scaled down and freshly painted airplanes, each with a local farm family name emblazoned across the tail, sits in the middle of that gone but not forgotten 3,000-foot dirt airstrip.

It will run beneath strands of replica, vintage light bulbs that have to be checked one by one to be sure they are ready to twinkle on opening night.

The logistics behind the Pumpkin and Chili Party are almost as dizzying as the thrilling, 52-foot-high amusement ride called the Hyper Loop, which will take you up, turn you in all directions, including upside down, and whip you around before bringing you gently to rest in front of one of the concessions stands on the farm.

You’re advised to eat the signature meat, veggie or succotash chili after you take that ride, though.

“It’s the kind of ride that you gotta have a strong stomach if you’re gonna ride that ride,” Schnepf said. “They actually suggest that you wait about 20 minutes between rides.”

It takes the 20 regular staff plus an additional 150 seasonal folks thousands of hours to make the 50-acre “park” area in the middle of the farm ready for what Schnepf says will be about 100,000 visitors next month.

“We start preparing for the Pumpkin and Chili Party in July when we plant the corn for the corn mazes. We have two giant corn mazes we do here on the farm,” Schnepf said.

One is about 4 acres. The other is 10. The smaller one is designed for visitors to pass through quickly.

The larger one is known as the celebrity maze in which the likeness of a well-known person is carved into the corn field. Past celebrities include Phoenix sports legends Luis Gonzalez and Steve Nash.

Others have included news icon Larry King and boxing champion Mohammed Ali, all of whom have been present when their likeness is unveiled.

“What we usually do is charter a helicopter for him or her and fly them out so they can see their image in the maze from up above because if you’re just looking at the corn you can’t see what’s there.”

This year’s honoree remains a secret.

While corn mazes are an historic tradition in the fall, getting them carved into the corn is a decidedly modern and high-tech process.

Schnepf hires a company to create the celebrity likeness with a computer program which then assigns GPS coordinates in the cornfield.

“Then they come out when the corn is about 6 inches tall,” Schnepf said. “They use their handheld GPS system to spray the pattern into the corn so that the corn dies and the rest of the corn grows to be about 8 feet tall.”

Carving the corn mazes and tidying up the pathways that go through them … check that off the list.

Sprucing up and cleaning the restored, historic 1950’s era buildings that dot the farm, check.

Shining up the amusement rides and checking them for operational and safety issues, check.

Chili, pizza, Italian Ice and other festival food on order, check.

Putting out trash cans and getting the bathrooms cleaned and prepared – that’s just about done too.

There is also a new field of sunflowers this year, designed to inspire selfies among the partygoers, according to Schnepf.

And what would a fall festival be without big, luscious, bright orange pumpkins peeking out from their thick green patch, waiting to be picked and carved into Jack-O-Lanterns for Halloween?

And … what about the light frost that settles on the pumpkin patch at night as temperatures dip, creating that chilly Autumn vibe this time of year?

“This is a little bit of Schnepf Farms magic.” Schnepf said. “Not everyone knows this but in Arizona it’s so warm here in this area, you can grow pumpkins but they don’t turn orange until November because they need cold weather to turn orange.

“And so, we ship in our pumpkins from colder climates. We get them from Colorado. We might get them from Utah. We don’t advertise that.”

The pumpkin patches on either side of the bumpy dirt road wending through the farm stand empty – save for the rogue weed patches still waiting for attention from the farmhands.

“We have this beautiful field of black-eyed peas that we plant and those pumpkins magically appear each night in that field of black-eyed peas and people come out to the pumpkin patch and are able to get their pumpkins,” Schnepf said.

Warm Arizona weather isn’t the only challenge that Schnepf faces.

Like other events, The Pumpkin and Chili Party was devastated by the COVID-19 pandemic and the shutdown that ensued, a sluggish economy as things started to return to normal, and supply chain problems, which, Schnepf said, are still a problem today.

“We have lots of equipment here with the rides and things, so we have to make sure that we have extra parts for the rides,” he said. “When a ride goes down you want to make sure you’re able to repair it in an hour or two instead of a day or two.”

For Schnepf, managing the supply chain problems, as is also the case with other businesses, comes down to looking as far as possible into the future and predicting what he will or may need and hoping he guesses right, which can often be difficult when he’s operating vintage equipment on the farm.

“The train is particularly important to us,” Schnepf said. “People love taking the train ride around the farm and at nighttime it becomes the spooky train ride and we hire high school kids to dress up in costumes and scare people.”

The same holds true for the aging but spruced up Flying Farmers ride, Ferris wheel, roller coaster, carousel, the tractors for the hayrides and dozens of other attractions designed to show families a good time.

Beyond the supply chain issues, Schnepf is feeling other effects of an economy that has now gone from stagnant to superheated.

“It’s becoming more difficult to staff an event like this because it’s a short-term event for a month,” Schnepf said. “As the economy gets better it’s harder to find employees so we employ young people.

“It might be their first-time job so we do a lot of training. But we’re always looking for adults who want to have a part time job, a second job, a seasonal job, whatever the case may be because staffing is super important,” he said.

So is timing.

The maze corn that workers planted in July takes a lot of tending. It has to be watered at just the right time and dry by a certain time so that workers can get a tractor into the field to carve the mazes, the corn from which is eventually used to feed the farm animals.

Amid the crushing pace of growth in Queen Creek, this protected, little area of town on Schnepf Farms really has kept a slice of Arizona’s agricultural history alive and thriving.

“We’ve been doing this for so many years now,” Schnepf said, “people that came here as little kids are now all grown up and they’re bringing their little kids. We are into the third generation of people coming to the Pumpkin and Chili Party, and it’s truly a family tradition.”

Beneath hundreds of the farm’s peach trees (Schnepf is the largest peach producer in the state) walking through this part of the 81-year-old farm is like stepping back in time, onto an old movie set.

“That’s what we’re going for,” Schnepf said. “Kind of a 1950’s farm experience.”

Even though The Pumpkin and Chili Party takes center stage in October, the rest of the activity on the working farm does not slow down.

Crops are being tended. Animals must be looked after and Schnepf Farms is also a wedding venue.

The farm has been re-zoned to agritainment; a designation designed to allow farming to take place while also serving as an entertainment venue with a nod towards keeping Queen Creek’s agricultural history alive.

“Doing the agritainment helps us preserve the farm,” Schnepf said. “Because if it was just a farm, where we were just growing crops, we probably couldn’t stay in business.”