By Ted Bodenrader
“If you build it, they will come.” Several years ago, these words seemingly fell upon the ears of John Kondilis-Hashem, an ambitious young farmer whose skills have graced Bella Organic Farm since 2008. With an eye for business prosperity and a hand for organic cropping, Kondilis-Hashem keenly studied the methods through which neighboring farms were boosting profits and sales. Upon assessing the local competition, he soon realized that his Oregon-based operation was lacking one critical ingredient.
“(Conventional) farms were all offering corn mazes — an attraction for drawing in crowds to their businesses,” he said. “We realized we were one of the only farms in the Portland area not doing one.”
But once the owners of Bella Organic built it — amid the steamy summer of 2010 — the premonition soon rang true. Today, visitors come in droves from the greater Portland region and beyond to lose themselves in the farm’s green-cropped labyrinths, a fun fall diversion from football and leaf-raking.
Although farms typically charge between $10 and $20 per visitor for a two-to three-hour meander through the pathways, the maze itself has not been the primary moneymaker in the case of many organic and sustainable farms.
“We make a little bit of money from the admission prices, but not a great deal,” said Kondilis-Hashem. “Rather, the purpose of the corn maze is to simply lure people to the farm. And boy has it ever. Once we get folks to come out, they end up spending an entire day here and purchasing many of the other things that we offer. We run the maze in conjunction with our pumpkin patch — and that’s where we really clean up. I’ve seen people come here and end up carting out six or seven pumpkins at a time. But the corn maze is what reels them in.”
Likewise, the operators of sustainable Billingsgate Farm have tasted similar success. The husband-wife team of Peter and Lynn Reading were facing an identical predicament as cross-coastal Bella Farm. Situated on the south shore of Massachusetts, a handful of conventional, non-organic farms within the vicinity were opening corn mazes every August through November. Hence, three years ago, Billingsgate jumped aboard the maze craze with its popular new attraction, spanned intricately across three and a half acres of corn husks.
“Once the summer dies down, business drops,” said Lynn. “So we had to come up with a way to draw people back to our farm. We were latecomers; other farms in the area had already been running mazes. But once we opened ours, it made a huge difference with profits. We had more people coming here than ever before.”
When the corn maze spawned overnight success, the Readings opted to add a miniature corn maze for younger children, this one boasting a Jack and the Beanstalk theme. Adding to the dramatic spike in seasonal revenue, Billingsgate also added full concession stands to accompany its corn mazes, transforming it into a family-fun atmosphere. Since introducing the local public to its sizeable corn maze, the farm stands and picking fields (berries and pumpkins) have performed at a higher rate.
“We’re more about agritourism. With the corn maze, we draw city kids from Boston who have never seen a salamander before. It becomes an educational experience for them, which ultimately attracts more interest in our farm. The more time they spend here, the more money we make in our fields and at our stands.”
However, such an endeavor is not without sizeable risks and expenses, as corn mazes can often require hefty investments. A professional maze designer is typically employed by the farm for servicing the maze. Aside from customizing the maze design, these companies often specialize in cutting the maze as well, many times through the use of GPS devices and hi-tech assistance. Additional expenses include various bells and whistles (like games, props or actors) nestled throughout the maze and marketing the autumn attraction through flyers, postcards and online campaigns.
While security measures can also prove somewhat costly, they also prevent potential lawsuits. At Billingsgate Farm, a short video preceding the jaunt through the maze informs visitors of rules and regulations.
The corn itself is a non-edible tropical corn silage that is used for consumption by ruminant animals such as cattle, sheep and goats. Although the silage is slightly more expensive than traditional sweet corn, the ears are never wasted.
Above all, however, there is but one unforeseen risk that crops up every autumn without fail.
“You just never know what Mother Nature has in store for us,” says Reading. “That’s always the greatest challenge; there’s no telling how the weather will affect the turnouts.”
Although corn mazes have become almost a prerequisite for public farms throughout suburban America, organic and sustainable farms are quickly catching on to the growing trend. In Masaryktown, Florida, Ted and Lisa Kessell offer both spring and autumn mazes for visitors to their Sweetfields Farm. In order to reduce expenses, the couple designs, cuts and maintains the mazes themselves. Unlike Bella Farm, the mazes at Sweetfields have morphed into the farm’s primary cash cow.
“Our mazes actually serve as our insurance policy,” says Lisa, pointing to the unpredictable Floridian weather patterns, particularly during the springtime tumult of hurricane season. “Some years, we’ve had substantial financial turmoil due to wind damage and other conditions on the farm. The money that comes in from the corn mazes helps stabilize the profits during these unavoidable catastrophes.”
With the success of their fall corn maze, the couple also launched a springtime attraction that challenges patrons to find their way through a green-leafed sunflower puzzle.
“In the springtime, crops are out of season in Florida, and so business is way down. We needed to come up with a way to bring people to our farm. That’s how we came up with the idea for the sunflower maze.”
With corn mazes catching on across the country, what challenges have awaited these newcomers to the sustainable farming industry?
“There’s really no difference in the way you approach building the corn maze,” said Kondilis-Hashem. “They’re basically made the same exact way (as conventional farms). The corn is planted the same way. The only difference is that we till all of the pathways in the maze, whereas other farms usually spray a (herbicide) solution.”
“It may take a little longer for organic and sustainable farms to create their mazes, because we do everything by hand,” echoes Lisa Kessel. “We can’t use anything that will stray from our policies.”
While organic farms may still be working their way through the proverbial conundrum, a few sensible approaches can help lead them down the proper pathway.
Corn Mazes: Be Different
Never replicate the features offered at a competitor’s corn maze. The allure of each corn maze is in its signature touch. For example, Bella Farm’s maze includes a feature based on the popular classic board game, Clue. With a host of pictures, weapons and clues scattered at various checkpoints throughout the maze, participants can indulge in a two-hour episode of whodunit. Many farms, like Billingsgate and Sweetfields, mark various checkpoints throughout the maze with multiple-choice trivia questions to help guide participants through the passageways. The correct answer points to tunnel light; the wrong answer leads to a dead end.
“We always check out the competition to see what they’re doing,” said Reading. “It’s important to be different.”
Many businesses, like Bella Farm and Rodoni Farms in Santa Cruz, California, transform their corn acreage into a field of screams, offering a Halloween-based approach with the use of ghoulish actors and scary props. With Halloween-themed entertainment on the upswing in recent years, haunted corn mazes have proven a big sell.
“The challenge of a corn maze is enticing,” says Kondilis-Hashem. “But sometimes people just prefer a good scare.”
Injecting creativity into the maze each year will bait new customers. For instance, Billingsgate Farm ends its fall season with “Dog Days at the Maze,” allowing visitors to navigate the maze alongside their four-legged companions. The farm has also implemented a new maze tracker feature, whereby participants can use their smartphones to navigate through the tricky twists and turns.
According to Reading, the maze tracker also prevents calls to local police departments (yes, it happens) by patrons stumped by the maze.
Also, many farms remain open for “flashlight hours” in which visitors trek through the husks with the use of strobed wattage, adding to the mystical ambiance.
Change It Up
Perhaps the most noteworthy feature of any corn maze is its theme (or design), which is typically only visible from aerial vantages. However, the overhead snapshot of a snazzy maze design on a farm’s website can serve as an effective marketing tool. This year, Jaemor Farm in Alto, Georgia, launched a maze in the shape of a football player. Bella Farm has sported a different maze design each year, including an image of Dracula, a beaver, a local university sports mascot, and logos for a Portland donut company and beer brewery.
At Billingsgate, patrons have weaved through designs of rainforest and pirate adventure themes. One year’s maze sported a Jurassic Park theme with a figure of the T-Rex dinosaur. At Sweetfields Farm they consistently concoct mazes that are relative to the farm itself.
“We make sure our maze designs are agriculturally related,” said Kessel. “One year, we built a new harvest barn so we decided to design our maze after it.”
Offer Supplemental Attractions
Whereas the corn maze serves as the entrée, side attractions help whet the appetites of fun-hungry visitors. In addition to a spectacular corn maze, many farms sweeten up their repertoires with hayrides, petting zoos, scarecrow contests and other innovative ideas.
This article appeared in the November 2015 issue of Acres U.S.A.