Oct 20, 2015Schopf brothers’ love of scaring people pays off
Jim Schopf has always loved scaring people.
As kids, he and his brother Gene would make straw tunnels in the barn. They’d invite friends to crawl through the tunnels and find ways to frighten them. Their mom would provide cookies and juice afterward.
Their hobby didn’t change as they got older. It just got more elaborate. By the fall of 1993, when they were in their 20s, Jim and Gene decided to cut a path through some corn and host scary hayrides at Gene’s farm near Lancaster, Pennsylvania. They did a little advertising, and about 2,000 people showed up.
“Back then, we were like, ‘Wow,’” Jim said. “People loved it. We had people asking us if they could be actors. They wanted to scare people.”
They decided to do it again – but make it bigger and scarier. They didn’t have any sort of business plan, but they did have passion, energy, creativity and the right resources to create and maintain annual haunted attractions, Jim said.
More than two decades later, their homemade hayrides have evolved into Field of Screams, a haunted attraction that now encompasses a hayride, two haunted houses, a haunted trail and a “couple hundred” live actors. The Travel Channel visited in 2008, naming Field of Screams one of “America’s Scariest Halloween Attractions.” Being featured in the television program got them a lot of attention, Jim said.
Jim and Gene decided to expand into kid-friendly fall activities several years ago. They created Corn Cob Acres, which is open during the day on the Field of Screams property. Corn Cob Acres includes a shell corn pit, barrel train ride, pedal carts, cornfield trail, pumpkin picking, face painting, goats – stuff that’s fun for kids, Jim said.
For adults, they recently added the 5K Zombie Fun Run. Participants wear a flag football belt with three flags each and run through various obstacles – including actors dressed as zombies, who try to swipe their flags. If they finish the 5K course with at least one flag remaining, they get a medal that says “Survived.” If they finish with no flags, they get a medal that says “Infected.” Part of the proceeds goes to the PA Breast Cancer Coalition, he said.
So, where do they get their ideas?
“We’re just crazy,” Jim said.
They’ve put a lot of thought into what scares people: Throw in traditional fears – the dark, loud noises, bugs – and add in décor, special effects and sensory details to up the experience. Keep an eye on what’s happening in pop culture, too – hence the zombies.
Jim gave an example: They’ve got a wagon ride that takes visitors through an old pig barn. The doors shut and trap the wagon inside. Canisters blow out an unpleasant scent. The lights go out – and next thing people know, pigs have dropped from the ceiling. The lights go on, and a soundtrack blares pig squeals while a mister system sprays blood.
“It’s pretty intense,” Jim said. “People get scared. Some will drive two hours to get here every fall. It’s what they do.”
Jim and Gene run another branch of the family business: Schopf Bros. Farms. They grow produce on 26 acres in the Lancaster area, and sell it from two farm stands. They also sell to wholesale growers. Any produce they can’t sell they take to local produce auctions.
The produce business also goes back to when Jim and Gene were kids. Their dad, Ed Schopf, was a teacher who owned a small farm on the side. Looking for a way to make extra money, young Jim and Gene started growing their own garden. Back then, Jim would pull a wagon around the neighborhood, selling cantaloupes, rhubarb and other crops. He learned who liked what, and which houses to visit to get an automatic sale.
Twenty-five years later, Gene bought a farm of his own. He and Jim both went to college to become teachers, and growing produce was still just a supplement to their income. Jim bought his own farm in 2000. They also raised chickens and capons for a while, but had to give that up when things got too busy, he said.
They both quit teaching about a decade ago. Between Schopf Bros. Farms and Field of Screams, they were just too busy. Giving up a job with a reliable income and good benefits was a risky move, but something had to give, Jim said.
“We decided to take the farming and agritainment route,” he said. “It worked out in the end.”
The main crop is sweet corn, nearly 20 acres of white and bicolor varieties. They pick all by hand. They purchased a one-row corn picker eight years ago, but found it was still quicker to pick by hand.
“We liked it a lot better, even though it was more work,” Jim said.
They don’t rely on migrant labor, so it’s tough to consistently find pickers. Coming in at 5 a.m. to pick corn for an hour or two is not for everyone. Some of their employees, mostly local people, will pick corn in the mornings and move on to agritainment work for the rest of the day. Schopf Bros. has six full-time employees and about 40 seasonal. They also get help from family members, he said.
Their dad is retired now, but stays involved in the farming business. Jim’s daughter Sydney, 11, and son Sutton, 9, help him pick corn in the mornings. Gene’s three kids also pick and work the produce stands.
The other major crop is pumpkins. They also grow ornamentals, tomatoes, cantaloupes and watermelons. They supplement their farm stands with produce from other growers, Jim said.
Sales start in spring with Easter and Mother’s Day flowers (which they buy from other growers). They set up a dozen stands in the Lancaster area for flower sales, but it’s hit or miss depending on weather. They start selling produce about June, and move into pumpkins and ornamentals in fall. They finish with Christmas trees. They buy the trees from other growers, and utilize their location and customer base to sell them, Jim said.