Pumpkins — and the farm activities built around them — are a mainstay for Oakley. He estimated that October and the spring strawberry season together account for nearly two-thirds of his business.
Even in the depths of the recession, as customers pulled back on discretionary spending, they still came out for pumpkins.
"It is a wholesome, fun activity to do as a family, and not that expensive," Oakley said. "A good way to get your feet in the dirt, so to speak, so you can see what's going on with your country cousins, you know what I mean?"
That's definitely part of what drives customers to him and other farmers in the fall, as opposed to a supermarket with a crate full of the gourds. Only 2 percent of Americans live on farms, and plenty of people in the other 98 percent like the idea of spending an occasional afternoon on one.
They're paying for the experience — the verdant fields, the rumble of a tractor, the weathered barn — as much as for the pumpkins. And some linger to get their money's worth.
"We've had some people spend hours and hours looking for the perfect pumpkin," said Milton of with Brad's Produce.
Some farms draw people in with the ag version of an amusement park. Gaver Farm in Mount Airy has a farm animal "arena," an obstacle course, a straw mountain, bale roping and play tractors — to name just a few of its more than 40 fall activities.
The farm's motto on its website: "We Harvest Fun!"
"If we go back a decade or 15 years, this whole agritourism thing was sort of a niche diversification, something you do on the side just to play around," said Charlie Touchette, executive director of the North American Farmers' Direct Marketing Association. "It's become far more significant to those farms that have grown with it. It's no longer the diversification, it's the focus for many of these farms."
The reason it works is that Americans are disconnected from farming, but not so far removed that the nostalgia for that lifestyle is gone, he said. And some local farmers think they're benefiting from the growing "buy local" enthusiasm.
Maryland looks like a good bet for agritourism, especially the densely populated stretch near Baltimore and Washington, because farms have so many potential customers — people with money to spare. It's one of the country's richest states, with half the households making more than $70,000 a year.
"There's a lot of people in Maryland, and there's an interest in … taking your kids out to something cool that's outdoors," said Mark Powell, chief of marketing for the Maryland Department of Agriculture, which is working with state highway officials to roll out road signs for agritourism operations next year.
Maryland's not short on fall-harvest options. The website PumpkinPatchesandMore.org counts about 100 farms, nurseries and other locations statewide with pumpkins and fall activities.
"It's … becoming very saturated in a way," Gaver said. "It's getting to be that a lot of people are doing the same thing."
Touchette said demand for agritourism still seems to be exceeding the supply nationwide. The top complaint he hears from farms isn't competition but weather woes — a rainy weekend in October can take a big bite out of revenue.
Drive to tiny Churchville near Bel Air for one example of coexisting competitors. Brad's Produce is one of three farming operations there with pumpkins and associated activities — the other two are Lohr's Orchard and Harman's Farm Market — "and all of us do a good business," Milton said.
"People like supporting the local farmers," he said.