Family farm offers autumn amusement

Friday, October 15, 2004

By Jim Obert

Business Today

SIKESTON -- The annual Fall Harvest Festival is well under way at Beggs Family Farm on Highway U near Blodgett. Fun for the family continues on weekends until Oct. 31. Owners Donnie and Sheila Beggs have created another challenging 12-acre cornfield maze to complement many more entertainment allurements.

"We're continually growing and adding attractions to the farm," said Donnie Beggs. "We keep changing. There's a good five to six hours of family activity every day."

Beggs Family Farm is a 1,100-acre working farm and the main crop is watermelon. But in the fall, it's one big entertaining festival -- and pumpkins abound.

The corn maze is themed "Lost in Space," and there are more than 10,000 feet of pathways cut into the shape of a space shuttle orbiting the Earth, and an astronaut is outside the shuttle. For the past four years the Beggses have hired a designer to help with their ideas for mazes.

To navigate the maze, visitors enter a "command center" where they are briefed on the mission. They are given a game sheet with the storyline. Maze-goers must answer questions and create their own map on the game sheet. Those who get lost raise a red flag and an employee comes to lead them out. Beggs said 40 percent of maze-goers take the challenge at night.

New this year is Barnyard Moonlight Golf, a 9-hole, glow-in-the-dark, farm-themed miniature golf layout enclosed in a barn. Another new attraction is the Miner Max maze with a gemstone mining sluice. For $4, kids can buy a bag of sand, empty it in a wooden box with a screen bottom, and sift the sand through flowing water until real gemstones are revealed.

There is a pumpkin patch that is reached by a tractor pulling a trailer for of kids and adults. Pumpkins can be picked off the vine.

Other attractions include wagon rides, bon fires, displays of farm animals, puppet shows, slides, swings and a large play fort.

Each weekday, school groups, church groups and special gatherings visit the farm, which is why it is open to the public on weekends. On one recent weekday, 700 students from 13 schools visited Beggs Family Farm.

Beggs said visitors have come from Arkansas, Tennessee, Illinois, Alabama and California. Beggs said that last year a family was taking a year-long trip across the country. "He pulled his kids out of school. They were in St. Louis visiting relatives and every morning they would search the Internet for places to go. They found Lambert's Cafe and then us."

Beggs Family Farm sells fall decorating supplies such as gourds, corn stalks, straw bales, Indian corn, mums and yard art. There is a gift shop and concessions stand.

Beggs said the annual Fall Harvest Festival has been such a success that next year there will be a spring festival in April and a strawberry festival in May. Birthday parties can be held at the farm from March through September on the second weekend of each month. Family reunions, corporate visits and big picnics can also be scheduled.

Beggs is already planning the cornfield maze for the next Fall Harvest Festival.

"It will be the most challenging," said Beggs, smiling wryly. "It's going to be 'Alcatraz: No One Escapes the Rock.'"

A history

The Beggs family farming heritage dates to 1895 when William Arthur Beggs first planted watermelons. This began a family tradition of watermelon farmers filling the need of consumers across the U.S.

Around the early 1900s, Blodgett became known as the "Watermelon Capital of the World." Blodgett received an award at the World's Fair of 1904 testifying to the fact that Blodgett was known as the largest watermelon-shipping center in the world. During the melon season, mile-long freight trains were loaded with watermelons from the wagons of the growers to be shipped to the northern markets.

At one time there were three generations of Beggs involved in this business, including the wives and daughters, who drove the tractors and trucks.

Time passed and things changed. Eventually all the brothers and cousins parted farming businesses. Donald Beggs and his son, Donnie, were the only two left in the watermelon business. Donnie went to college but returned every year to help with the family farm. Once he finished school, he returned to work the farm. Donald did most of the telephone marketing, selling melons through brokers. Donnie ran the watermelon crews.

Since 1997, fourth-generation Donnie and his wife have run the farm. They raise about 200 acres of melons, and sell most of them through brokers, but they also sell to peddlers and individuals. Last season they sold more than 140 truckloads. Migrant workers are hired to pick the crop.

Although watermelon is the primary crop at the farm, other crops include corn, soybeans and pumpkins.

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