Using produce for destructive fun

Thurmont farm's pumpkin, corncob cannons encourage visitors to play with their food

October 30, 2006|By Chris Emery | Chris Emery,SUN REPORTER

Thurmont -- Rhiannon Talbert climbed into the gunner's seat and took aim at possible targets - a boat, a minivan and an old lawnmower resting on concrete pillars about 100 yards away.

In the distance, white clouds floated by a grain silo poking up from a nearby farm, and a few feet to her right another cannon - a pumpkin cannon - roared.

Satisfied with her aim, the 8-year-old smacked a large red button on her gun's console and whump - a corn cob blasted from one of its twin barrels. It sailed end over end above the field, arched in the wind and passed just below the lawnmower, a near miss.

The setting was Winterbrook Farm in Thurmont, which offers autumnal "agritainment" from mid-September to the end of October. Yesterday marked this year's last chance to walk the farm's eight-mile corn maze - seen from an airplane, its winding passageways form a rendering of Civil War soldiers - or to fire the pumpkin and corncob cannons, which use compressed air to turn produce into projectiles.

The farm also grows hay and raises turkeys, but not as cannon fodder.

Rhiannon, whose family drove from nearby Myersville to the farm in northern Frederick County, wasn't the only one having trouble getting corncobs to connect in the brisk fall wind.

"It really vibrates when you move it up and down, so it's bumpy," Rhiannon said of aiming the cannon's barrels with hydraulic levers.

The corncob cannon was added to the farm's armaments this year for young children to shoot, according to farm owner Kristen Lawyer. The trigger on the pumpkin cannon, she said, is too difficult to for a child to pull alone. "We had little kids getting disappointed," she said. "They just didn't have the strength."

She and her husband, Jan Lawyer, first turned a cornfield into a maze in 2000 to supplement their income from selling 180,000 turkeys a year and more than 40,000 bales of hay. The next year, they added the pumpkin cannon - painted bright orange, of course - to attract more visitors.

"Lots of other farms have pumpkin patches," she said, standing next to a tepee at the farm's entrance. "This is beyond that ... this is something else."

The pumpkin cannon cost the couple about $10,000 to build and the corn cannon about $18,000 - it cost more because it is mounted on a working piece of construction equipment. Kristen Lawyer said the pumpkin cannon has launched its Halloweenish ammo as far as 3,000 feet, and the smaller corncob cannon can send apples as far as 1,500 feet.

Yrieix de James, 15, gave both cannons a try yesterday, and had the best luck launching pumpkins. An exchange student from Lyon, France, Yrieix visited the farm with his host family from Baltimore's Guilford neighborhood.

He climbed onto the pumpkin cannon's platform - made of old playground equipment - and looked through the giant cross-hair sight mounted at the end of the wide barrel. The target boat, painted in yellow and orange with black polka dots, rested atop a 40-foot concrete pillar.

A farm worker opened the cannon's chamber and inserted a small green and orange Mystic pumpkin, a round variety grown at Winterbrook that is valued for its aerodynamic qualities and is sold as ammo at three for $7 (on top of the small admission fee).

The hiss of the external air compressor filling the howitzer's tank stopped, and Yrieix took his final aim. He pulled down on a lever and a pumpkin blew out of the bright orange barrel, leaving behind a white cloud of condensation. The pumpkin sailed across the field and slammed into the side of the boat. The dozen or so onlookers cheered as pumpkin puree rained down on the field.

Yrieix dismounted from the firing platform with a wide smile on his face. It was his first experience in fruit-and-vegetable marksmanship.

"There's no pumpkin cannon in France," he said.

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