Ever-evolving Wickham Farms closes so it can grow in a new location

As soon as a birthday party at Wickham Farms ended Sunday afternoon, the staff started dismantling the building in preparations to move.

The popular agricultural-entertainment business closed last week temporarily to move around the corner to 1315 Sweets Corners Road in Penfield.  Wickham Farms will reopen Aug. 17, as it heads into its busiest season: first sunflowers, then apples and finally pumpkins before the place closes for the winter.

Meanwhile, a construction trailer was already sitting in the parking lot last week to direct what will happen next to the 8.4 acres at 1821 Fairport Nine Mile Point Road, immediately adjacent to the Eastside Family YMCA.

Though the Wickhams hadn’t originally expected to close one location before opening the other, the building schedule for a mixed-use senior living project that will grow on the property pushed things along, they said. And they’re a family whose business has proven that they know how to adapt.

Dale Wickham and parents Debbie and Bill Wickham at their old location. RBJ Photo by Diana Louise Carter
Dale Wickham and parents Debbie and Bill Wickham at their old location. Photo by Diana Louise Carter)

Home Leasing and Episcopal SeniorLife Communities are partnering on the project known as Penfield Square. Home Leasing CEO Bret Garwood said his company will develop 114 units of independent living residences for seniors, expecting to start construction next week. Meanwhile, Garwood said, Episcopal SeniorLife Communities will begin building 70 assisted living units for seniors by the end of the year.  Other amenities include a village green event space that will be available to the larger community, some stores and bistros.

“We’ll start marketing about this time next year,” Garwood said, expecting the first residents to start moving in late 2020 or early 2021.

Those residents will be living on top of what started out for the Wickhams as little more than a pumpkin patch.

Originally, the patch was a way for Bill Wickham to keep his hand in farming after his family sold the family vegetable and grain farm in Stanley, Ontario County.  He started raising and selling pumpkins at another site in Penfield in 1988 and then, in the mid-1990s, moved to the land they vacated on Sunday, renting at first.

The family’s first improvements at that site came after they purchased the land in 2002. They added a parking lot and a fence around the pumpkin patch, the first of many investments.

Today, the business has grown into a full-time livelihood for Bill, wife Debbie, and their son Dale, who joined the business full-time when he graduated from Cornell University – his parents’ alma mater – in 2018.  They also have two older children who are employed in food and agriculture but not at Wickham Farms. While Bill continues to have a consulting business on the side, Debbie retired from Xerox Corp. 18 months ago.

Over the years, Wickham Farms added a farm market, jumping pillow, batting cages, a kiddie train, miniature golf course and corn maze. When they started a community-supported agriculture program, or CSA, in which subscribers pay for a selection of produce each week during the growing season, they realized they needed more land to support it. So they purchased the 120-acre farm – formerly a vineyard – on Sweets Corners Road in 2012. It’s possible to see that site from the old one.

The Wickhams pulled out 110 acres of grape vines at Sweets Corners and planted vegetables and 5,000 apple trees.  They’ve also erected two new buildings to house the farm market, events space and CSA operations.

Last week on one of the first days kids were off from school, the old Wickham Farms was still bustling even though some of the fixtures had been moved out of the farm market and into the two new buildings at the new location.

Though the crowd wasn’t unusually large, visitors all seemed to know that this was one of their last chances to visit until August, Debbie Wickham said.

“Less than two percent of the population lives on a farm, but we can provide an opportunity for people to come out and get a little bit of that experience,” Bill said.

“We’re in the family fun business…” Bill said, with Debbie amplifying his statement by adding “… the making-memories business.”

Almost everything at the Nine Mile Point Road site will move to the farm on Sweets Corners Road, where it will be joined by expanded and new attractions.

Dale Wickham described a jumping pad – a flatter, less springy version of a jumping pillow – that will be added for toddlers next to the jumping pillow at the bigger farm. A second kiddie train will be added, along with a new mountain slide and duck races that employ rubber ducks and water-filled chutes.  Going along with the farm theme will be a slide created out of a 20-year-old combine, a piece of farm equipment bigger than some small homes.

The farm is adding to its kitchen facilities both in the retail area and event space. And there will be plenty more restrooms, Debbie Wickham said.

The popular apple cannon, which shoots “drops” that cannot be sold, will move to the new location. But the batting cages will not be going with them. Bill explained that as the family enterprise has grown, they’ve often needed to move attractions from one spot to another to make room. The batting cages, however, are permanently fixed in one spot, making them unable to go with the flow that seems integral to the history of Wickham Farms. Things are constantly changing.

“Ten years ago, October was the busiest time,” Bill said, as families made an annual tradition out of selecting their pumpkins and perhaps adding a trip through a corn maze. The last three years, however, visitors have also started coming in droves in August to walk the paths through five acres and 19 varieties of sunflowers. That attraction has drawn in people from other states and Canada, Debbie said.  The farm’s Sunflower Spectacular events, along with the U-pick apple business, now keep about 100 seasonal employees busy from August through the end of October.

The Wickhams aren’t worried about losing customers while they’re closed.

“Financial sustainability is part of this. We think we have enough of a track record in what we do,” for customers to return, Bill said. They’ve also planned for the lean time by growing multiple revenue streams. The  CSA, for instance, now with more close to 450 subscribers and about 300 in any given week, is providing income that will help tide them over until the business reopens.

It all fits in their flexible plan for growth.

“We’re trying to build something…” Bill said.

“…that will outlast Bill and I,” Debbie finished.

“The biggest challenge is more of a staffing perspective, making sure we have tasks available for them to do,” Bill said.  It’s no surprise that flexibility will be part of the answer.

The person who might have scooped ice cream last week, Debbie said, might be harvesting vegetables next week. Those harvesting skills might come in handy at the new location.

“One of the best things is we’re going to have a bigger pumpkin field,” Debbie said.

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Wickham Farms is moving to bigger location around the corner in Penfield

Wickham Farms in Penfield will temporarily close on Sunday and reopen at a new location on Aug. 17.

The agricultural entertainment business is moving three-tenths of a mile to the east from its current location at 1821 Fairport Nine Mile Point Road, where it has been since 1986. It’s moving to a 120-acre farm at 1315 Sweets Corners Road, which the Wickham family has used for some time to  grow produce sold in its community-supported agriculture program, and as the site of its u-pick apple orchard.

The Wickhams broke ground at Sweets Corners Road in November to create two new buildings and a new Barnyard Fun Area. The fun area alone will be at least as large as the eight-acre Wickham Farms site that is closing.

The new site will open with the Wickham Farms’ annual Sunflower Spectacular. The farm will feature attractions such as a jumping pillow, kiddie train rides, giant mountain slides and tunnels, playgrounds, a corn pit, mini golf, corn mazes, apple cannons, and rubber duck races.

Wickham Farms charges a one-price admission covering all its attractions and sells season passes that cover from the August opening to Halloween, when the farm closes for the year. Guests visiting just to pick apples and pumpkins, visit the Wickham corn maze, or buy  produce or treats from the Wickham farm store do not have to pay an admission charge.

Hours at the business this week will be from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. For more information, visit the farm’s website or Facebook page.

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