WILLMAR -- Families who are looking for something to do this week when kids are out of school for the annual Education Minnesota conference may want to consider taking a trip to a farm.
Whether it's an apple orchard or a pumpkin patch, visiting a farm is a great way to experience fall in Minnesota, said Paul Hugunin, coordinator of the Minnesota Department of Agriculture's Minnesota Grown Program.
Students will be out of school Thursday and Friday for what is often still called the MEA break, referring to the former Minnesota Education Association.
Hugunin said touring one of the farms listed in the state's Minnesota Grown directory is a "great way to build family traditions that the children will enjoy, while supporting local farms at the same time."
The Nelson Farm, in rural Litchfield, is a popular regional destination during fall weekends in September and October, including the four-day weekend.
This is the 21st year of the Pumpkin Patch Festival at the family-owned farm, which features farm animals, hay rides, a rope swing in the hay mow, getting lost in a large corn maze and watching pumpkins fly in their "pumpkin chucker flinger thinger," otherwise known as a trebuchet.
The quaint farm, surrounded by oak trees and a small lake, combines hands-on agricultural education with fun during special weekday school tours that are booked two to three years in advance, said Sonja Nelson, who operates the Nelson Farm with her husband, Don.
Those sessions include holding newly hatched chicks and picking, candling, grading and packing eggs produced by hens in the chicken barn, seeing a baby calf and hearing about the facts of livestock farming and "harvesting" animals for food.
"We want to tell the true story," she said. "I really think it's important to help the kids realize and see where their food comes from."
On weekends, including the upcoming break, there's more of a festival go-at-your-own-pace atmosphere where participants can have home-grown farm fun that includes games, rides, crafts and seeing farm animals.
Besides watching the trebuchet fling pumpkins far into the lake, a highlight of the Nelson Farm is the corn maze that has a different design each year.
This year the maze has a "go green" theme in a nod to efforts to produce renewable energy, including two wind farms located near the Nelson Farm that started producing electricity in March.
The festival takes place "rain or shine or snow or sleet," said Nelson.
A number of orchards and vineyards are also open during the upcoming long weekend.
New this year, the Glacial Ridge Winery near Spicer has opened up its apple orchards for people of all ages to pick apples, including during this weekend. At the same time, parents can learn about grapes and making wine.