ELEVEN MILE CORNER -- Millions of gourds fill the bins at “Gourdtopia,” a shopping center-style section of the Wuertz Gourd Farm where artists and crafters can wander the aisles and dig through bins of gourds.
The Weurtz family took out a loan a few years ago to build the covered feature at the farm to make it more comfortable for shoppers to spend long, leisurely hours searching for the perfect gourds for various projects.
“It makes the farm more of a destination,” said Waylon Weurtz of Wuertz Gourd Farm.
On an average weekend in the winter months, between 50 and 100 people visit Gourdtopia, but when COVID-19 hit, its impact was felt at the farm.
“We had to close for most of March and all of April,” Wuertz said. “That’s the time when our winter visitors come by and stock up on gourds before heading back home for the summer. We went from selling hundreds of gourds a day in person to zero.”
But the farm, which recently reopened to the public, worked to adapt to the changes brought by COVID-19. While in-person sales dropped during the months of the pandemic, online sales increased.
“We lowered our price point for free shipping from 100 dollars to 75 and that helped,” Wuertz said. “We also started offering cleaned gourds for the same price as uncleaned.”
Gourdtopia is an outdoor facility covered by a shade structure. It reopened in May. While facial coverings are required inside the small gift shop, visitors do not need to wear a mask when outside.
“Some of our seasoned artists come with a list of things they need,” Wuertz said. “But others like to walk up and down the aisles to see what calls to them.”
The appeal of gourds to artists and crafters is easy to see, Wuertz said.
“Gourds are blank canvases. They can be made into just about anything,” he said. “The sky is the limit. They’re available in every shape and each one has its own personality.”
The Wuertz family operates about 500 acres of farmland with about 40 acres dedicated to growing gourds.
The family added gourd growing to the farming operation as a side business for Waylon when he was in college to help with expenses. By the time he graduated from college, he’d realized the money-making potential in gourds. Now, he and his wife, Leah, run Wuertz Gourd Farm full time, growing nearly 900,000 gourds each year.
Traditional Arizona crops, including hay, cotton and barley, are grown on the other 460 acres of the family farm, but fields are rotated every season.
“Gourds have a longer growing season than cotton and other crops,” Wuertz said. “They grow for 180 days, then there’s four months of drying before we harvest them in February and March.”
Helping people better understand the potential of gourds, the Wuertz family hosts an annual festival every year in February at the nearby Pinal Fairgrounds and Event Center.
The Running of the Gourds festival is one of the largest gourd festivals in the country with an estimated 12,000 people attending the three-day event.
More than 120 vendors and artists set up booths at the festival and dozens of classes are offered to help beginner and advanced gourd artists develop their skills.
The 2020 festival was held before COVID-19 prompted the closure or cancellation of other events and activities.
“We were lucky,” Wuertz said. “If we hadn’t held the festival, I don’t know where we’d be now. For 2021, we’re going ahead with planning and we hope the festival takes place. We’ve received a lot of vendor applications and applications from people wanting to teach classes. It’s easier to go ahead and plan for the festival and then cancel if we have to.”
The gourd is a cousin to the pumpkin but the varieties grown by the Wuertz family are inedible and grown specifically for the crafting and artistry markets. The kettle gourd — also known as the Hershey Kiss gourd because of its shape — is the best seller and among the more versatile of the varieties.
“They come in shapes ranging from earring sized to ones you can’t fit your arms around,” Wuertz said.
Gourds grown on the farm are sold direct to consumers rather to artist shops and suppliers. About 90% of the visitors to Wuertz Gourd Farm are retired gourd hobbyists, and many of them have started a gourd-based business.
“One nice thing about this business is that we’ve helped people learn new skills to help them turn a profit in tough times,” Wuertz said. “During the last recession, we picked up business as people started crafting with gourds and started their own gourd-based businesses.”
With Gourdtopia and the gift shop now reopened with COVID-19 safety precautions in place, Wuertz said he’s ready for the gourds to inspire a new crop of visitors to the farm.
“I hope people drive out here to see what we have and to be inspired,” he said.
Gourdtopia is open Tuesday through Saturday, 8 a.m. to noon. When the weather cools down, it will also be open in the afternoon.