AIRLIE -- Overcast skies give way to rain over Airlie Hills Family Farm as Aaron Kennel maneuvers a 1953 John Deere Tractor up a small hill, pulling a hay bale-covered trailer with 15 anxious Falls City Elementary School children.
Kennel stops at a quarter-acre pumpkin patch and gives the group a simple instruction: any pumpkin you can lift and carry is yours. He barely finishes before the group is off and running.
Luke Cornelison, 9, walks through a few muddy rows and pushes aside leaves and vines as he hunts for his ideal pumpkin.
"I look at the top to see if it's green or if there's bug bites on it," Cornelison said. "Last, I see if I can carry it."
He opts for one the size of a basketball, noting it "would make a really cool jack-o-lantern" for Halloween.
The rain begins to intensify, but it doesn't bother Cornelison and the others.
"I don't care as long as I have fun," he said.
That was the kind of response Aaron Kennel and his wife, Sarah, were hoping for when they turned a small pumpkin patch on their hydroponic strawberry farm seven miles southwest of Monmouth into a roughly six-acre harvest season attraction that opened on Oct. 1.
About 40 children from Falls City climbed on hay pyramids, raced tricycles, wandered through a tall Sudan grass maze and picked gourds and pumpkins.
Aaron Kennel used to work alongside his brother and father growing grass seed throughout Polk County, something his family has done since the late 1800s.
Last year, he and his wife started their own hydroponic strawberry farm, believed to be the only one of its kind in the state.
The couple decided to devote a quarter-acre for a traditional pumpkin patch for the fall. As their strawberry operation has tripled in size -- they have added eight greenhouses, which lets them produce berries from March to December -- Aaron said they decided to be more ambitious with their pumpkin patch, as well.
"There's not much else going on in the way of pumpkin patches in Polk County this year," Aaron Kennel said. "So we thought it would be a good opportunity to have something for kids from schools and families to do."
The couple added another acre or so of pumpkins. With their two children, Tailor and Teegan, they worked for a couple of weeks to build a playground with hay obstacles, and decked out the barn with a grain filled sandbox and giant hay slide.
"We're planning on making this an annual thing," Aaron Kennel said.
Kousei Igarashi, a 16-year-old Falls City High exchange student from Japan, helped chaperon the younger children during last week's visit.
"I've never been to one (a pumpkin patch) before," he said. "Wow! It's pretty fun."
The pumpkin patch and harvest activities at Airlie Hills Family Farm are open 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Sundays until Oct. 30. Cost per person is $4 on weekdays and $5 on weekends. School tours can also be scheduled.
For more information: www.airliehillsfarm.com or 503-932-8083.