Mar 13, 2014
Airborne attractions propel farm market

The pumpkins are flying at Lewis Farm Market in New Era, Mich. And if seeing those spheres heading skyward isn’t thrilling enough, visitors can check out fruit cannons that allow them to take aim at targets in the field.

It’s all part of the atmosphere at the 700-acre, family owned farm that features homegrown produce, fruit orchards, a farm market, bakery, corn maze and petting zoo. The activities are numerous from May through October.

“Our Pumpkin Chucker is very cool to have on a farm in the fall,” said Scott Lewis, who owns the operation with his wife Cindy.

“We saw a pumpkin shooter in Delaware when we went on a farm tour five years ago,” Lewis said. “It had a 500-gallon propane tank with a 20-foot-long barrel. We got the pieces and parts for it, and had a friend who was an excellent welder. We spent a night every week working on it. That was in April 2008. We basically put together a prototype and later developed a way to lift it out to the field.”

When asked how much it cost to build the machine, Lewis said, “it almost cost a divorce.”

A tractor is used to haul the chucker, which is a regular feature of the nearby U.S. Coast Guard Festival Parade held in the summer in Grand Haven, Mich.

“We get lots of applause,” Lewis said. “We’ve been going there for almost 10 years.”

Lewis said farm visitors aren’t allowed to shoot the contraption, which can send pumpkins flying over half a mile, with the furthest launch reaching more than 3,300 feet.

“It’s part of our wagon-ride experience. It gives the teenager, dad and little one something to do when they come here – it just adds to it,” he said.

Agritainment is the lifeblood of Lewis Farm Market, attracting visitors from a wide region, Lewis said. An apple orchard was removed to make room for a new market building.

The farm market was built in the 1970s by Scott’s grandparents, Winston and Alice Lewis, and his parents, Gary and Brenda Lewis. It was closed for a few years, but reopened in 2003 as a roadside stop, becoming a full-fledged market a year later.

“We are built to be a farmers’ market,” he said. “It started one season we tried to sell sweet cherries from a picnic table in the front yard. We’re on a good road in a good location. Then we did asparagus. We decided to build a farm market, adding some animals, and it grew from there. That’s kind of the direction we’ve taken it. We’re close to the lake. With the tourist industry, it works in our favor being where we’re located.

“A cold summer is good for us,” Lewis said, “People are still on vacation, and when they’re not at the beach they’ve got to find something else to do.”

Apple canons a hit

Another big attraction at Lewis Farm Market is the six “Bunker Hill Cannons,” apple shooters that became a new addition after the Lewis’ observed similar contraptions being used during a California farm tour.

“We stopped at a farm that happened to have a bunch of them,” Lewis said. “My wife fell in love with them as much as I did, so she let me build them. It was my ambition and goal to have them for the fall of 2012. That was the year we had no fruit (due to a spring freeze), so I had more time on my hands.”

With the help of a local welder, the project saw Lewis recreate what he had previously seen on the tour.

“In 2012, we had six working at our farm,” he said. “People have fun shooting them. It’s like a miniature howitzer. Teens, kids, dads – there’s nobody who doesn’t seem to like it. We’ve received excellent feedback.”

He said the original versions of the cannons were smaller and a farm employee was required to load the cannons, similar to loading a muzzleloader.

“It was fun, but the problem was you had to use one employee for every cannon,” he said. “It was kind of dangerous, also, being at the end of the barrel to load.

The cannons were refitted and “the customer does most of the work now. They are breach loaded, dropping the fruit in the back, pushing the lever and it slides the retainer forward. The apple drops into the chamber. Release, and it’s ready to fire. Now we only use half the labor.”

The initial cannons were aimed at plywood targets. The newer versions pack more steam, and they blew apart the plywood. A longer-lasting hard target is now used.

The setup on the range, which is 250 feet wide and 500 feet long, features bunkers, sand bags and varying levels from which customers can choose. Replicas of deer, elk and even cars taken from junkyards also are used as targets.

“It’s like a carnival game – only on steroids,” Lewis chuckled.

Lewis is building the fruit cannons to sell to other farm operations.

“We had six farms using 15 cannons this past season,” he said. “We don’t really want to get into the building business. There are some product liability insurance concerns. We do feel comfortable working with a few farms. They’ve all had great luck and success with them. I don’t know if, in the future, we will sell five or 50.

“Agritainment is a growing industry,” Lewis said. “It’s surprising how popular things like this are out there.”

For more information about the Pumpkin Chucker or apple cannons, email Scott Lewis.

Gary Pullano

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