Selling pumpkins and strawberry shortcakes- the two don’t exactly shout “match made in Heaven,” but one North Carolina matriarch and her family have found a way to make it work. Following yard-stake signs for a pumpkin patch right along Highway 64 between Apex and Pittsboro, we broke north on your standard country road, weaving through peaceful wooded areas between farms, nurseries, and homes. Just under ten minutes later, we were pulling off the east side of the road into “Ragan & Holly’s Pumpkin Patch,” run by the Hopeland family. Not particularly hungry, but our interest piqued by the state-fair food truck enjoying at least as much business as the actual pumpkin patch, we strolled over to meet the woman we soon knew as Mrs. Jean Hopeland.
A well-kept, smart, and sincere woman by appearance, Jean Hopeland is, by at least one account, the area’s resident Jane Lynch. On this day, Jean was looking comfortable behind the counter of the food truck, teaching her niece the tricks of the trade and clocking in some quality bonding time. Curiosity was knocking impatiently, so we had to ask Mrs. Hopeland: What was a state-fair food truck doing on a farm? Apparently, it was the intersection of good business sense and a childhood love. Mrs. Hopeland was selling beverages, fresh apples, and jars of her homemade strawberry jams, but the pride of her food truck was her strawberry shortcake.
Jean shared with us warm memories of cooking and taking meals with family. She told us about the trials and rewards of strawberry growing. She was laid-back, happy to talk to us at length and answer all our questions, an attitude you just don’t see in the city. Jean is living on country time. The pumpkin patch itself was not bustling, but it was bright with the familiar colors and sights of Autumn in the country. There were several tractors for decoration, and colors of all sizes and even colors (white and green pumpkins were a new experience).
We had never heard of pumpkin farming in the area, though, which was what made the set-up so curious. Mrs. Hopeland took clear pride in her baked goods, preserves, and of course in her strawberries – the last of which was probably easier to brag about than not! But Jean was understanding enough when we asked her how she liked farming pumpkins, wearing our agricultural ignorance on our sleeves. Alas, she reveals, the Hopeland family does not grow the pumpkins sold at the Hopeland Family Pumpkin Patch. If they did, there probably wouldn’t still be a Hopeland Family Pumpkin Patch today.
The pumpkins are outsourced from Ohio, where pumpkin farming is actually lucrative. Jean decided to incorporate the pumpkin patch into what she enjoys – growing strawberries, cooking with strawberries, and spending time with her family – and let synergy take over. It was hard not to envy Mrs. Hopeland. Between the “seasonal” plot of land now occupied by pumpkins, the food truck that apparently truly does take in business at fairs and festivals, and of course the family farmlands, each generation of the Hopeland clan was having fun, making a comfortable living, yet never farther than a short stroll away from the woman that started it all.
The pumpkins rested on haybales, wooden pallets, and right on the ground, and the patch wouldn’t be there forever, with winter slowly approaching. But the little community surrounding the pumpkin patch takes life as it comes, setting up shop when the leaves turn and moving on when the air starts to get cold. Jean Hopeland goes back to her strawberry gardens in the woods off Route 64. Next year, when the foliage begins blossoming into orange again, the cycle will repeat and the pumpkin patch and Mrs. Hopeland will return to share North Carolina’s bounty with curious passers-by like ourselves.