Fall is most definitely in the air. The sun is rising later and setting earlier. The weather has turned brisk and even rainy, signaling soon that sweaters will be in order. The luscious stone fruits, melons, corn and squash of summer are giving way to apples, pears, harvest grapes, and, of course, pumpkins.
The appearance of these earthy, orange globes at market means that autumn has officially arrived. I love both the classic and colorful heirloom varieties that are plentiful to choose from this time of year. Whether we decorate our porches and tables with them, or roast the sweet flesh to make a delicious pie, these seasonal beauties are always in demand.
Each October, I look forward to celebrating the fall harvest with a trip to Spring Hill Jersey Cheese Company's Great Peter Pumpkin Patch. Many local residents may already be familiar with Spring Hill Farm, having visited their booth at Novato Farmers Market over the past three years. If you missed them at this year’s market, don’t despair. Their organic cheeses are available at .
This 300-acre certified organic dairy, near the little town of Two Rock, eight miles west of Petaluma, produces some of the finest Jersey milk cheeses you've ever tasted. They also host one of the best "pick your own" pumpkin patches in the North Bay. My family discovered this gem seven years ago, and has been making a tradition of visiting each fall since. Although my kids are now teenagers, they still enjoy spending an afternoon "down on the farm" at Spring Hill.
If you're looking for a fun family outing, this is it, hands down. It's an easy 20- or 30-minute drive from Novato through the scenic farmland. You won't find a jumpy house on the property, and you won't pay for admission or parking either. What you will find is an authentic farm experience, starting with a sprawling pumpkin field where you can wander to your heart's content in search of the perfect specimen for your harvest display.
After you've picked your pumpkins and loaded them into one of the supplied wheelbarrows, walk to the neighboring field where you and your kids can dig your own organic potatoes. Keep an eye out for Earl, who gives great pointers for locating the best spots to dig for success. They even supply the tools! There's nothing quite like unearthing your own yukon gold, russet, butterball and red bliss potatoes. Watching them emerge from the dirt yields a sense of satisfaction that can't be rivaled in the produce aisle at the grocery store. My own kids heaved up eight pounds of spuds in record time, and are convinced they taste better because they gleaned them. At $1.50 per pound, it's a bargain experience that's not to be missed.
Now that your wheelbarrow is probably full, mosey on up to the big tent, where you can pay for your haul, and taste some of Spring Hill's award winning organic cheeses for free. We were particularly enamored with their Jersey Pesto Jack and Jersey Sage Jack cheese, the latter recommended by staff as a unique and tasty addition grated into mashed potatoes. We purchased some, excited to try this new twist on our freshly dug specimens at dinner that night. The result was delicious!
After sampling the cheese, be sure to save room for their old-fashioned homemade ice-cream — available in pumpkin or chocolate, fresh from the dairy ($1.50 for an individual cup). It's a treat that never disappoints. My family favors the pumpkin ice cream, but you can’t go wrong with either choice.
Now that the heavy lifting is done, drop your purchases off at the car before walking over to milk a dairy cow, hand-feed grain to piglets, pet a miniature donkey, bottle feed a Jersey calf, run through the hay maze, or take a ride on a tractor-pulled hay wagon around the property — all for free! If you like, bring a picnic to eat at one of their covered table areas and make a day of it. There's even live music on the weekends. At Spring Hill Farm, they don't nickel and dime you to death, a philosophy I find refreshing compared with other venues we've tried through the years. That's why we keep coming back. Personally, I think it's a great value.
Peter's Pumpkin Patch at Spring Hill Farm is open every day through Oct. 31, from 9 a.m. until dusk. Wear layers of comfortable, casual clothing and shoes or rubber boots that don't mind some dirt (or mud with these recent rains). You can also schedule an educational tour for your group or school by calling 707-762-3446 to make a reservation.
The farm is located at 4235 Spring Hill Road, eight miles west of Petaluma (look for the Peter's Pumpkin Patch signs). From Novato, take Highway 101 north to the Washington Avenue exit in Petaluma. Go west through Petaluma. Just past downtown, the road becomes Bodega Highway. Continue eight miles to Spring Hill Road, and turn left at the Two Rock Church. The farm is on Spring Hill Road, 1 mile from the Bodega Highway on the right.