Pumpkin Picking at Donaldson Farms

For as long as we've been dating, my wife and I have made a tradition out of pumpkin picking every October. The first year we were together, we went to a small farm near my apartment in Somerset, NJ. It was good times; the farm was nice and they had a decent selection of pumpkins. We thought that was the pinnacle of picking pumpkins. Man, were we wrong.

The following year, a friend my wife worked with suggested we check out Donaldson Farms in Hackettstown. Before this, the only thing I knew about Hackettstown is that it is home to the M&M factory in New Jersey. We decided to go check out the farm and were completely blown away. This isn't just your standard "Go find a pumpkin and pay for it" ordeal. Donaldson Farms had just about everything under the sun. Since then, we've gone back every year and enjoy ourselves each time.

Lining the parking area is a massive Corn Maze, each year featuring a new design. This year was a farm scene, a little disappointing considering the Halloween designs they've done in previous years but whatever. Not every farm has a corn maze so it's still a fun thing to do with the family. As you go through the maze, you'll find a few placards displaying fun facts about corn and farming. It's fun, it's educational, and it helps support the local farmers. We didn't do the maze this year but not because we weren't interested but because there was so much other stuff to do we didn't have time.

The first area you come to after parking is the indoor Farmer's Market where they sell a wide range of fresh produce, milk, honey and lots of other good stuff. We always save the market for last because we don't want to leave what we buy in the car for hours. So I'll get to that part of the story later.

We invited our friends and their 2-year-old daughter, Sophie to meet us at the farm this year so they can see what it's all about. It took a few minutes to find them in the crowd but when we did, the first stop we came to was the petting zoo. I say "zoo" but in reality, it's really only about five animals: two goats, three chickens and a cow. It's small but still fun, especially for Sophie who is learning her animal sounds. Hearing her "moo" at the cow was the cutest thing.

We walked around the courtyard for a little bit just to check out everything that they had. They set up those painted cutouts, where you poke your head through a take a ridiculous picture of yourself, all in different shapes. A few ghosts, one with a tractor pulling some hay, and one featuring a recreation of "American Gothic". It's silly and harmless and just fun to do. They also have a Duck Race. For $3, you can buy a little rubber duck (which you get to keep) and put it in the water tube. Using an old pump, you churn water into the tube and race ducks. Again, silly and harmless but the kids there had a blast.

This year has a new attraction: a giant sandbox with a bunch of sand toys. Some kids were building sandcastles with little plastic buckets and drove trucks through the sand. I'm a little hesitant around sandboxes just because they tend to be litter boxes for stray cats but if those parents are cool with that, more power to them. Knowing this farm, it's probably super clean but I really have no reason to go in there.

After that, we visited the pony ride. For $5, your little one can ride on their choice of 3 horses or 1 pony. This is something that they introduced a few years ago and it's been an amazing hit. Every time we're there, there always seems to be a line to ride the horses. I can only imagine how much this attraction pulls in.

From there we decided to get some food. They have a grill set up offering a few quick, freshly made meals including burgers, hot dogs, chicken fingers and cheesesteaks. It's not 5-star dining but for the price, it's damn good. Much better than swinging by McDonalds for a Big Mac. The cheesesteak didn't hold up so well being put in a hot dog bun for for $4.50, it was completely worth it and tasted great. With our bellies full, it was time go get on the hayride.

The purpose of the hayride is to get you out to the pumpkin patch and allow you to pick your own. It's a $2 charge to take the hayride but the experience is completely optional since they have different size pumpkins all around the farm that you can purchase. We like doing the hayride and having the full experience and $2 is a small price to pay. The hayride itself winds through different parts of the farm so you can see apple trees, asparagus patches, and the strawberry fields. The owners also set up a wide range of scarecrows in different positions, like a man proposing to a woman and a woman out jogging with her dog. They aren't all Halloween-themed but they make the experience fun.

The pumpkin patch is a long, open area right on the outskirts of a corn field. I believe this is the first year they allowed visitors to go into the field and pick their own Indian corn. I didn't bother with that as I have no idea what to do with Indian corn. We set out to scour the patch for our perfect pumpkins; not too big, not too small, and hopefully yielding a high volume of seeds to be toasted after carving. We picked two, which took some time to find as there seemed to be a high volume of deformed or destroyed pumpkins throughout the patch. I don't know if this was due to a poor crop for the year or if they had so many sales that a lot of the good ones were already taken but either way, I'm glad we found two good pumpkins.

One of the coolest things about the pumpkin patch is the giant Jack Skellington scarecrow, complete with Zero by his side. This thing is massive, I'd say at least 10 feet tall. And I love the tiny pumpkin that makes up Zero's nose. These guys are out there every year and I'm always excited to see them.

After heading back to the farm on the return tractor (or "bus" as I was calling it), we went over to pay for our pumpkins and drop them in our cars before heading to the market. The market is probably the most exciting place on the entire farm especially if you're a fat kid like me. They have a wide range of fresh, homemade pies baked on premises. We've tried the Pumpkin, Apple, Apple Crisp, Sweet Potato, and probably one or two others that I've forgotten about and they've all been amazing. This year we got us an Apple Walnut. I have yet to try it as of the time of this writing but I have a funny feeling it's going to be delicious.

Pie isn't the only sweet treat we get. They also sell fresh apple cider by the gallon and half gallon. They give out samples right outside the market so you can try before you buy. There's really no reason to try; it's the best apple cider I've had anywhere. And if you do pick up a gallon, don't forget to get yourself a half-dozen apple cider donuts. Sooooo delicious. They also sell single donuts if you don't want to fall into a diabetic coma. The market has much more to offer like all of their produce, as I mentioned before, as well as fresh baked bread, hot soup, coffee, and even candied apples.

Our shopping spree complete, headed over to the last attraction of our day: the Corn Cannon. For 4 bucks, you can fire 5 ears of corn from a pressurized tube at a few targets about 100 feet away. There's no real purpose to the game other than to tell your friends that you fired a corn cannon.

Finally, we loaded up our pies, cider, donuts and tired bodies and headed home. The trip is about 50 minutes to an hour with no traffic but the drive is worth every moment once we get there. It's only been a few days since the pumpkin picking and I'm already looking forward to next year's visit. They do have other events throughout the year, like a strawberry picking festival, but I've never gotten the chance to visit one of those. Maybe this year will be different.

If you're in the North/Central Jersey area and are looking for a fun, safe place to take your kids, go to Donaldson Farms.

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