WHEELING, W.Va. — When you pull into The Pumpkin Patch at Valley Bend Farm, tucked in the hills of northern West Virginia, a warm smile greets you.
Betty Hickey, 78, owns that warm smile and The Pumpkin Patch.
She has been serving the community by growing produce, pumpkins and other fall favorites on her 150 acres in Marshall County for more than 25 years.
Hickey was recognized this summer as a 2017 West Virginia Women in Agriculture award winner at the state fair, along with Brittany Farris of Brooke County, Amy Martin of Hardy County and Pamela Yost of Monongalia County.
Hickey’s longtime friend, Lou Hanlin, nominated her.
“I am, and have been for many years, a great admirer of Betty’s agricultural knowledge and of her ability to share this knowledge,” Hanlin said, who grew up in the same community and has always gone to the same church as Hickey.
“Her knowledge, sincerity, experience and honesty make her worthy of this award,” Hanlin said.
The farm has been in the family since the 1760s, mostly operating as a dairy. The dairy operation was dismantled in the 1990s.
With the help of her son and support from her daughters, Hickey and her husband, Jim, who died in 2006, transformed the acreage into produce production and an agritourism destination.
Her passion for horticulture started at a young age.
“There is pleasure in seeing a tiny seed grow into a plant. I like to be in touch with nature,” said Hickey, a grandmother of four.
Her love of gardening led her to serve as the director of the Palace of Gold Rose Garden at New Vrindaban, for 28 years, before retiring in 2011.
There are 130 such rose gardens in the nation, she said, each with 800-900 bushes on display.
“One year we would put a rose bush on display, and the next it would be on the market,” she said. “People would come from all over to see the roses.”
Under her direction, the All American Rose Garden was awarded the High Maintenance Award for 10 consecutive years, and between 1988 and 1998, the garden was named in the top 100 gardens in the U.S. by the American Rose Society.
Hickey loves problem solving and research. If an issue came up in the garden, like pests or weeds, she would research the best remedies.
“Now this was before we could Google everything,” she said. “I would pull out old Extension newsletters and horticulture reference books and get to the bottom of it.”
Hickey became a Master Gardener in the first class held in West Virginia.
She uses the same skills today, as she works in the pumpkin patch with her son, Glenn.
“He has a real respect of the soil and conservation — he replenishes what he takes out.”
They started out doing everything by hand. One year, she had a few extra pumpkins and her husband told her to put them by the road and maybe they could sell them, and they did.
The next year, they decided to plant just a few more pumpkins. Then, local families started asking for them and it kept growing, she said.
Glenn has modified a corn planter to plant the pumpkin rows 6 or 12 feet apart, and has made other mechanical adjustments to ease labor.
This year, they have three acres of pumpkins. At one time, they grew six acres, but have had trouble with disease and insects and decided to scaled back.
Over the years, they have learned what varieties grow well in their soil.
“We have had a lot of success with the variety, “Field Trip” — it is a perfectly shaped pumpkin, with a nice strong stem, that is mildew and disease resistant,” she said.
They grow the pumpkins in half-acre plots with a corridor between each plot so the tractor doesn’t have to go into the field to spray. The space also helps with air circulation.
One year, they had a lot of trouble with mold. Hickey contacted a pumpkin grower in Ohio, who used an airblast sprayer to reduce mold on their pumpkins.
Airblast sprayers use the herbicide to produce a fog. The force of the air turns the leaves over to get underneath, where the problems can originate.
They still use a boom sprayer for herbicides, but use the airblast for fungicides and insecticides.
One year, they had a total crop failure. “In July we were on the fence, wondering if we could even open that fall.”
Glenn encouraged her not just to put up a sign saying “closed” — the easy way out — but that they had to keep a personal touch with the customers.
So they did. That fall, as the cars rolled into The Pumpkin Patch, Betty was there to tell them what had happened with their crop and ask them to come back the next year.
This personal touch keeps their customers loyal.
“Every year, we learn something new, and make adjustments,” she said.
Hickey also sells pumpkins to three retailers and supplies other events such as Oglebay Park’s Boo at the Zoo.
Today, Hickey hosts busloads of children from the local elementary at the farm.
“During the busy harvest season, Betty makes time for the kids,” said Hanlin. “Some of these kids think pumpkins come from store shelves, not vines.”
The children come to the farm, learn about growing pumpkins and get to take one home.
“Some will pick the ugliest one you’ve ever seen, but that is their special one,” Hickey said.
Children have to carry their own pumpkin, to make it fair between those who have parents on the field trip and those who don’t.
Hickey also raises mums from plant plugs she buys in June. This year, she raised 200 mums.
To increase pollination, six years ago they added two bee hives to the farm. They noticed a difference in the number of pollinated flowers and have added four more. Glenn tends to the bees and they make and sell their own honey.
In the summer, their big seller is sweet corn. “We have a lot of regular customers that will order sweet corn for freezing and canning.”
They usually have sweet corn from mid-July through mid-September. They also sell green beans, tomatoes, potatoes and green peepers
Betty helps in the production too, when needed.
“My girlfriends say, ‘how did you learn how to drive a tractor?’ I laugh and say, sometimes I wish I hadn’t.”
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