Where getting lost is so much fun

Cornfield mazes are harvesting a lot of excitement

October 03, 2002|By Lisa Wiseman | Lisa Wiseman,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

You're lost. You don't know where you are, where you've been or where you need to go. In fact, you have been wandering aimlessly for close to two hours. You feel as if you've been going in circles. You have absolutely no idea how to break out of the trap you're in.

You're also having the time of your life.

Call it the corn-maze craze. People who normally don't like getting lost - and who does? - are entering these confounding cornfields by the thousands. They're all over the country and all around the Baltimore area. It's as if farmers can't build them fast enough.

These intricate pathways and designs (representing everything from dinosaurs, kangaroos and crabs to boats, trains and tractors) are made by cutting into 6- and 7-foot-high stalks of corn.

Your goal, upon entering, is to see if you're smart enough to make your way through the twisting turns and find the exit before breaking down and blubbering like a baby.

Can you make it through 17 acres of corn in under an hour? How good is your sense of direction? Will the map and clues given out at many mazes speed you on your way, or will you end up dumbfounded even with them?

What began as a way for a few farmers to make a little extra money at the end of the summer-harvest season has become a full-fledged phenomenon. There are several hundred corn mazes scattered throughout the United States, and more than a dozen just within a day's drive of Baltimore.

Brad Milton, owner of Brad's Produce in Churchville, says having a corn maze on his farm this year has helped bring more customers to his fruit and vegetable stand.

Milton, 29, has been working on farms since the age of 13. He bought his first farm in 2000. Like all farmers, he knows that one bad summer can ruin you, so he struggled to find a way to keep the farm he worked so hard to get.

"I was looking through a farming magazine and I came across an ad for a company that designs corn mazes. It seemed like a good idea. Not only do people come to my farm, I can also educate them about the farming industry."

Milton used the company, Maize Quest, to help him map out his corn maze. This year, the company designed mazes for 24 farms in 12 states.

"Turning a cornfield into a challenging game that turns a profit for the farmer makes Maize Quest an exciting business," said Hugh McPherson, owner and operator. The 5-year-old company is based in New Park, Pa., in York County, where Maple Lawn Farms, the company's first and "flagship" maze, is also located.

Last year, more than 15,000 people visited Maple Lawn Farms in the 2 1/2 months the maze was open. McPherson expects more than 250,000 visitors to all his Maize Quest locations this year.

Another major player in the corn-maze business is the MAiZE, based in Utah. Owner Brett Herbst grew up in a farm family but wanted to make his own way after getting a college degree in agriculture. He got into the corn-maze business as a way to stay in the farming industry.

In 1995, after reading about a corn maze in Shippensburg, Pa., Herbst set out to design his own. With some borrowed land and borrowed farm equipment, Herbst - with the help of a couple of friends - cut out a map of the state of Utah in a cornfield. At the time, it was the largest corn maze in the western United States.

Herbst was surprised when 18,000 people came to the maze in just three weeks. "I knew I just had to do this," he says. Right now, Herbst designs and redesigns mazes for 130 farms across the United States, including two in Maryland - Horizon Organic Farm in Gambrills and Bowles Farm in St. Mary's County.

Nearly 2 million people have visited one of the more than 300 mazes Herbst has designed over the past seven years. He will create just about anything for a client - from animals, buildings and farm themes to likenesses of John Wayne or an astronaut on the moon.

Some mazes, like a crab-shaped one in Stevenson, are designed using global positioning systems - the same satellite technology used in luxury automobiles to help drivers track where they are and map their way around a traffic jam.

"Using GPS makes the maze map extremely accurate," says LeaAnn McNabb of Trimble, a maker of global positioning systems. A number of farmers are using the company's GPS devices and field-mapping software to draw out their own corn mazes.

Farmers who decide to turn their cornfields into mazes start out by planting their corn as they would in any season. The stalks that need to be cut are marked with flags or string when they are only a few inches tall and are then cut away. While the remaining corn grows, the pathways need to be constantly tended and cleared, otherwise crops and weeds would start to grow.

"It's a lot of work and a lot of man hours to maintain the maze," said Denise Sharp of Waterford Farm in Howard County.

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