Saturday, Oct. 28, 2006 | Sherrie Bates-Ness’ great grandfather opened a nut farm in 1921 on about 100 acres outside Valley Center. Five generations later, she and her husband Tom operate the landmark attraction for families and schools, who flock to the farm’s wide-open fields for the chance to pick a Halloween pumpkin straight from the patch.

The Bates Nut Farm has become more of an amusement park today than a traditional working farm, complete with hayrides, boutique shopping and a petting zoo. Still, caught up with Bates-Ness to discuss the finer points of farming on a day when 1,100 schoolchildren trekked from as far as Tijuana to pluck prime jack-o’-lantern material.

What’s the biggest pumpkin you’ve ever grown?

The largest one we’ve had was about 245 (lbs.). This year the largest one we’ve got is about 198 (lbs.). This year for some reason they were a little bit smaller than normal.

Any idea why?

No, not really. We ended up having a hard time getting the seed for what we usually grow. And we had a problem with the crows. They weren’t on the vine as much as normal, but they were ready. Every year is a new year.

Do you carve pumpkins?

Personally? I usually do at least one a year, not many more than that, just for my own family at home.

What’s the most creative design you’ve ever seen?

There used to be an art director from a high school that would come out, and he would actually … carve the outside of the skins and draw really neat designs on there. I loved what he did, it was gorgeous.

Do you have a carving contest here?

No, we tried it one year, but we didn’t really get much response. We have costume contest, and that’s been much more popular.

Describe what the situation is for backcountry farmers like you to get water.

It obviously is very much a huge issue. We’ve been really blessed to have wells here on the property. As long as we can continue to get our own water, that’s what makes farming – to an extent – more viable.

A few years ago … before we had all those rains, wells were really, really low. We would have to go on district water. At some point, it makes it prohibitive. Most of the farms that are making it … are on wells. A lot of orange growers here and avocado growers have had to let their groves go.

And then people get upset because they’re selling [the groves] to developers, but really they’re forced sell [the land] if they can’t farm it. Most of their money is tied up in their property.

You said earlier that people love coming out here and seeing the sights and being near the pumpkins and whatnot, do you see development being a near-term threat to the county’s rural areas?

We’re protected to a certain extent here because we’re surrounded by Indian reservation, both in front and in back of us.

We’re pretty protected, but it’s encroaching on us as well. It does take away the ruralness that we once had.

I think it’s inevitable. I saw it happen with Bernardo Winery in Rancho Bernardo. I remember going there as a little girl, and now it’s totally surrounded by housing developments. They still run a little business there.

Do you hold any celebrations to mark the harvest season?

We start off the season with a farm education day to let people know about our farm. The 4-H brings animals and there’s a beekeeper that comes.

It seems that we hear that there’s a big portion of agricultural workers that are illegal immigrants, but farmers will tell you individually that they aren’t the ones employing them. Would you venture a guess as to how many agricultural workers here or anywhere else are here illegally?

Oh, I have no idea. Fortunately, we are not having to reach into that. We don’t do that much farming. We pretty much just do pumpkins and have our regular employees throughout the year. The only time we need additional help is this month.

And that’s what’s been harder: People are struggling to get their papers together. You’re not finding the work.

What’s the process for a grower or any other employer to check that their workers are here legally?

You can’t discriminate, so pretty much any employee that comes through here has to answer to all the questions that anyone would. So they have to provide documentation. Social security, driver’s license – [The Department of Homeland Security] has all these things that they have to show, and most times it has to be just two forms of ID. That’s all.

What are your thoughts on the current immigration debate? Is it being handled fairly?

I think they need to be citizens … and if they’re not citizens they need to be documented. I don’t think we can just open the doors and just let them all come in. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but other countries are not allowing that to happen – for them to just be free. I do believe that they are essential to our workforce. I think they … are hard-working people, and American citizens just aren’t willing to do those jobs. Even a lot of them who have immigrated here are no longer willing to do those jobs.

There has to be some decision to allow them to get documentation and to work here for a period of time. I know it’s a big deal in Escondido right now. But just like I told you about being an employer, I think landlords should be able to do the same thing. It’s not a difficult process.

I told my husband this morning … that, well, if nothing else, it could cause more illegal documents. If someone gives me illegal documents, I can’t prove they’re illegal. You know what I mean? … I could make you have to give me a copy … but if it looks like anything else …

If the government had a thing where you could plug in that social security [number] … I’m surprised they haven’t done (that).

Gov. Schwarzenegger recently signed into law an increase in California’s minimum wage. How will that affect you?

What people don’t realize is that it’s going to increase the prices of everything … You start adding 50 cents an hour and then a $1 an hour to everyone’s wage, there’s no way you can stay in business and not raise the prices.

My last question is very serious. What are you going to be for Halloween?

Ha! I’m going home! We’re so tired, I can’t even explain how busy we are here.

– Interview by EVAN McLAUGHLIN

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