Cutting farm losses into profitable mazes

Labyrinth: As drought hurts their bottom line, farmers harvest success from the `roller coaster of agritourism.'

September 16, 2002|By Maria Blackburn | Maria Blackburn,SUN STAFF

By now, the cornstalks in Patrick Rodgers' Green Spring Valley field have grown yellow and brittle from a summer of too much sun, too little rain. The 250,000 stalks stand by the side of a busy, two-lane suburban road looking a little forlorn, as if they know they are past their prime.

But inside the 5-acre cornfield lies the secret to how Rodgers, who is 24 and fresh out of the University of Maryland, College Park, with a degree in agriculture, plans to survive as a family farmer. Early this summer, he cut a maze in the shape of a 264-foot-wide Maryland blue crab into the field. And on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays from Labor Day through the weekend after Halloween, Rodgers is charging visitors $6 a piece for the chance to get lost.

"It's a fun activity for families and it gives people a chance to do something they wouldn't normally do," said Rodgers, who raises a herd of 40 registered Black Angus cattle on the 66-acre North Run Farm on Greenspring Valley Road next to Villa Julie College in Stevenson. "With the farming situation, I had to find a way to keep farming on this land."

Since he opened the maze on Labor Day weekend, about 800 people have been through. One mother-and-daughter team took 50 minutes to find their way without using a map; another team took a more leisurely two hours and 20 minutes with the map. And a pair of 75-year-old women stopped by after a visit to a nearby decorator's show house and tromped the maze's dirt pathways, gleefully bragging that the task was one their friends couldn't complete.

Although the maze is crafted from a material that's older than the nation, the method for creating it is completely high-tech. Rodgers planted the pasture in April and mailed images of Maryland blue crabs to Shawn Stolworthy, a corn maze designer based in Firth, Idaho.

Stolworthy arrived in Stevenson in early July and entered the coordinates of the field and the details of the design into a Global Positioning System satellite computer. He walked the field using directions given to him by the GPS equipment in his backpack and Rodgers followed behind, mowing a 50-inch-wide patch to create the crab image.

The process took one afternoon to complete and Stolworthy's design services, provided through his company, Great Adventure Corn Mazes, cost between $3,000 and $6,000. Rodgers won't say exactly how much he spent on the maze. But Stolworthy noted that some farmers spend a minimum of $30,000, including advertising.

Rodgers acknowledges that he could have made the maze the old-fashioned way -- by laying a grid over the field and cutting it one stalk at a time -- but felt he was better off leaving the job to a professional. "I think it will all be worth it," Rodgers said.

People -- especially Europeans and Australians -- have been crafting mazes from hedges and other materials for centuries. But large-scale commercial corn mazes are a more recent phenomenon, one that dates to the early 1990s, according to Don Frantz, owner of the New York City-based American Maze Co., who designed his first corn maze in Annville, Pa., in 1993.

The number of corn mazes nationally has grown to more than 500 during the past decade -- with about a half-dozen in Maryland. The growth is spurred by an increase in agricultural tourism, especially in more urban states, said Lori Lynch, an agricultural economist with the University of Maryland. Farmers need to make their land profitable and families are looking for entertainment closer to home.

"We think of the maze as the roller coaster of agritourism," Frantz said. "An acre of corn on a great year might produce $200 worth of profit. The idea of cutting paths through the corn and getting $400 or in some cases $10,000 for it saves the family farm."

At Kristen Lawyer's Winterbrook Farm in Thurmont, the past three years of corn mazes have been a godsend. "We are not making it with traditional crops," said Lawyer, whose Stolworthy-designed maze features an image of the U.S. Capitol building.

When the North Run maze closes for the season in November, when the pumpkins and zucchini bread and "I conquered the crab" T-shirts have all been sold, Rodgers will drive a combine through the maze, transforming it from entertainment into feed for his cows. He won't mourn the maze, he says, despite the effort and money that went into it.

"Not if I get enough corn out of it," he said.

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