Fall festivals: five delicious ways to celebrate

There’s something really depressing about seeing the last of the tomatoes, corn, and stonefruit at the farmers market, the withering vines in my neighbor’s gardens. But fall is also an exciting time for produce geeks, what with all the peppers and squash, pomegranates and persimmons.

If you love yourself some good food and drink, here are five reasons to welcome fall. No matter where you live in the North America, at least one of these is guaranteed to be coming soon to a town near you.

1. Hit a harvest festival
From the hokey (corn mazes, hay rides) to the downright debaucherous (late-night live music and beer gardens, camping in orchards), harvest festivals are a blast, no matter what your age. A great harvest festival will include delicious food; local craft beer, cider, or wine; farm tours and seminars; a children’s area and special activities; live music, and, if you’re lucky, a beautiful, bucolic setting in which to experience it all. Some festivals run the span of a weekend, providing an opportunity to take in more of the educational offerings.

Below are some of my favorite festivals, all of which have an educational component to them. Should you find yourself in Northern California in early October, it’s worth a detour to attend the famous Hoes Down Harvest Festival (Oct.1-2) at Full Belly Farm in the Capay Valley, near Davis. It’s one hell of a party (there’s also a top-notch children’s activity area, so little people will have fun, too); definitely plan on camping in the orchard and bring your swim suit; the farm is located beside Cache Creek.

Other great celebrations of fall: Vashon Harvest Farm Tour (Sept. 25), Vashon Island, WA; CUESA Harvest Festival (Oct. 22), Ferry Building Farmers Market, San Francisco, CA; Annual Harvest Festival, Sustainable Settings (mid-Sept.; date varies, but mark your calendars for next year!) Carbondale, CO.

September 22nd, from 7:30-9pm, the 16th Annual Harvest in the Square is being held in Union Square; online tickets are still available until tomorrow at noon for what is one of New York’s premier food and wine events. Some general admission tickets will be available at the event for a higher price.

[Photo credit: Flickr user zakVTA]2. Check out Crush
In North America, the wine grape harvest is held in September or October, depending upon weather patterns. In Napa Valley, “Crush” has just started, and with it, fall colors on the vines; barrel tastings; special winery tours, wine-and-cheese pairings, and up-close-and-personal views of the Crush itself. Even if you’re not an oenophile, it’s by far the most beautiful time to visit Napa and it’s neighboring wine region, Sonoma Country. For Napa wineries and event listings, click here. For California’s Central Coast wine region events, click here.

Check out wine harvest events in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, Washington state’s Yakima and Walla Walla regions, and British Columbia’s Fraser and Okanogan Valleys (go to Wines of the Northwest for events calendar on all of the aforementioned); for New York’s Finger Lakes, Hudson Valley, and other regions go to Uncork New York!

3. Go apple picking
With apple-growing regions scattered all over North America–from Virginia and Pennsylvania to New York, Washington state, British Columbia, and California–there’s no shortage of opportunities to attend festivals or U-picks. This traditional fall pastime is a fun activity for kids and supports the local economy and foodshed. Put up apple butter, -sauce, or freeze a pie for Thanksgiving, but be sure to save enough for winter (all apples and pears are placed in cold storage once the growing season ends, so the fruit you buy later in the season won’t be freshly picked). Store in a cool, dry, dark place. P.S. Don’t forget to buy some cider doughnuts if they’re available.

Please note that due to unusual weather patterns (aka “global warming”) this past year, the harvest is delayed in many parts of the country, including Washington. Check with local farms before heading out.

4. Visit a cidery
If you prefer your apples fermented, there are some excellent craft cideries throughout North America. The tradition of craft cider distilling hails from Western Europe, but domestically, the hot spots are the Pacific Northwest (including British Columbia), parts of the Midwest, and the Northeast.

5. Feast at a farm dinner
For food lovers, few things beat dining outdoors in an orchard or pasture, surrounded by the people and ingredients that made your meal possible. Farm dinners are a growing national trend; they may be hosted independently by the farm (Washington’s Dog Mountain Farm, Colorado’s Zephyros Farm, and California’s Harley Farms Goat Dairy are my picks) or hosted by companies like Portland, Oregon’s Plate & Pitchfork and Boulder’s Meadow Lark Farm Dinners. Many farm dinners are fundraisers to help protect local agricultural easements or wetlands, but your participation also supports the farm and local foodshed.

Farm dinners are also held at wineries, distilleries, craft breweries, mariculture farms, and creameries; a tour should be included. The best part, however, is when the guests include everyone from the local cheesemaker, rancher, fisherman, or winemaker, to the potter who made the plates. It’s both humbling and gratifying to meet the people who work so hard to ensure local communities have a safe, sustainable food supply.

[Photo credits: grapes, Flickr user minnucci]

Highwood, IL to attempt Guinness Record for most jack-o-lanterns lit in one location

There must be a thousand ways to break a Guinness World Record, and most are easier than this.

The city of Highwood, Illinois will light the night for Halloween this year. If all goes well, they will also end up in the Guinness Book of World Records for the most jack-o-lanterns lit in one location. To break the record, this little town of about 5,000 residents needs to beat Boston’s record of 30,128 pumpkins aglow in 2006.

Starting Wednesday October 20, 2010, thousands of volunteers will be carving, staging and lighting candles in pumpkins, culminating in a whopping 32,000 simultaneously-lit pumpkins for the record-breaking grand lighting at precisely 6:30 p.m. (central time) on Saturday October 23rd.

Pumpkin walls are already in place with tiered racks to hold the massive number of pumpkins. To qualify for the Guinness Book of World Records, all 32,000 must remain lit together for a minimum five-minute period.

Other concurrent events include an Evening Gourmet Farmers Market at Highwood’s City Hall Park, vendors selling antiques, live music, a haunted fun house, and of course, a pumpkin pie eating contest.

Pumpkin farmers from across the Midwest are bringing thousands of pumpkins and carving events are organized en masse at every school, religious and community organization and local military base in this area north of Chicago. The ghosts of all those pumpkins will be composted after the celebration.

The Highwood, Illinois festival is also dedicating Scout Park to the Boy Scouts of America and will have 100 Scout packs and troops, as well as veterans and local military on hand for three days of recognition, to raise awareness for Wounded Warrior Project. Highly motivated by this huge celebration, the local Scout troops are pitching in to carve 10,000 of the pumpkins required to beat the world record.

If you’re in the Chicago area and see a strange glow in the sky on October 23, besides the full moon, it just might be the Great Pumpkin victory, as Highwood, Illinois breaks the world record.

Helen Gallagher writes about business, technology, and travel for national consumer and trade publications. She is the author of Social Media Handbook and Release Your Writing: Book Publishing, Your Way! Read her blog on Red Room.

Fun filled fall activities at the pumpkin farm

Pumpkin farmers are a creative bunch of entrepreneurs. What used to be nothing more than a pumpkin patch with a small country store, has now evolved into a multi-million dollar entertainment industry.

Most pumpkin patches obviously still sell pumpkins, but they also offer enough entertainment to keep you and your family entertained for a couple of hours. At many of these farms, you’ll find kiddie rides, hay rides, corn cannons (a ton of fun!), fresh food, pick your own pumpkins and lots more.

Now the weather is just right for outdoor activities, load your kid(s) in the car, and head towards one of the 100’s of pumpkin farms. If you need help finding one, start at “Pumpkin Patches and More” where you’ll find a fantastic overview of all the current fun locations, along with their opening hours, directions and activities.

If at all possible, try going to one of these locations on a week day. Not only will the crowds be lighter, you’ll save on the price of attractions, as many locations offer unlimited ride passes for one low fee. Also, check out the web site of your local farm for coupons or other discounts.

Before you leave a pumpkin patch, be sure to make a stop in their farmstand as most locations sell fresh baked goods like cider apple doughnuts and of course an assortment of pies.

Carve a pumpkin, win a vacation

Head up to Cape Elizabeth, Maine to cut up a pumpkin, and you may wind up with a return trip. Inn by the Sea is taking the New England institution of pumpkin carving to a new level. Spend two nights or more at this resort in October, and you’ll be given a complementary pumpkin … along with the accoutrements for turning it into a frightening or masterful Jack O’Lantern. And, be sure to make some time to sip a cup of hot cider by the fireplace afterward.

At the end of the month, Inn by the Sea will choose the winner. The judges work from a blind photo array, awarding points for creativity, artistry and the all-important fun factor. In November, check the inn’s website for the winner. If it’s you, Inn by the Sea will credit all the expense from your trip back to you – regardless of what you spent or how long you stayed.

The Pumpkin Art package includes two nights at the inn, breakfast for two each day at the Sea Glass restaurant and the pumpkin carving essentials. The rest, of course, is up to you!

Photo of the Day (10-29-08)

This time of year in Ohio, it’s hard not to trip over a pumpkin. They march up people’s porch steps. They perch on hay bales in front of grocery stores, and they fill tables at roadside fruit stands. Some folks sell pumpkins as fundraisers. Heading to a farm to pick a pumpkin from a field is a favorite fall activity in this blocky sliver of the world.

When I saw Brian Brook’s photo of this pumpkin field, the eye-popping colors reminded me of two Saturdays ago when my son had an impulse to go bowling with pumpkins when we meandered through a similar field. I did stop him.

And there was the pumpkin patch last Saturday at Young’s Jersey Dairy near Yellow Springs, Ohio where we picked up our fifth pumpkin. We are not planning on getting a sixth. If we do, I know where to find one.

If you have any photos with eye-popping colors, send them our way at Gadling’s Flickr Photo Pool to be considered for the Photo of the Day.