Farmers find path out of hardship in corn mazes, more

Kim Severson / New York Times News Service /

Published Nov 11, 2012 at 04:00AM / Updated Nov 19, 2013 at 12:31AM

MILTON, Tenn. — Over the course of a month, Stan Vaught’s two sons will make more money letting people walk through a maze carved from 10 acres of corn than he will raising cattle and soybeans on the other 190 acres of his family’s farmland.

All across the country, small farmers have figured out the same formula. The hundreds of corn mazes that rise up each autumn can be more lucrative than agriculture itself.

“For a lot of people who have these farms with a few hundred acres, it’s an opportunity to make a living and not have to get rid of the farm or not be able to keep it up,” said Vaught, whose land on a former Civil War battle site in central Tennessee has been in his family for seven generations.

Corn mazes have gotten so popular in the past decade that those who engage in the craft hold annual conventions. Mazes are tricked out with zip lines, live zombie scarecrows and corn cannons, which can shoot an ear of corn across a field.

People buy tickets online or pay on hand-held devices, sometimes handing over $20 or more to enjoy a range of countrified entertainment.

It is a perfect pursuit for a culture enjoying a local food diet in a high-tech era.

“Corn mazes are similar to the cultural connections farmers markets and CSAs are creating between two worlds,” said Kendall Thu, an anthropology professor at Northern Illinois University in Dekalb, Ill., and editor of the journal Culture & Agriculture. CSAs are community-supported agriculture programs in which customers buy produce from farmers in advance.

Unlike farmers markets, which have a certain upscale appeal in urban markets, corn mazes are especially popular among the suburban masses longing for a country experience many have only heard about.

The Vaught boys, Jackson, 19, and Chandler, 16, who started building mazes in Milton eight years ago as a way to make some extra money, took in more than $8,000 on a recent Saturday, they say. They usually create a patriotic pattern. This year, the maze is laid out to depict busts of President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.

People like corn mazes because they like to work puzzles, certainly. And for many, it has become as much a Halloween tradition as carving a pumpkin.

But there is also an unspoken draw to the country that makes thousands of people hand over $8 to wander the Vaught maze, said Jackson Vaught, a freshman at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. He is studying politics and economics on a merit scholarship and comes home for the weekends to work the maze.

His friends at college are enthralled that his family actually lives on a farm.

“I have not met another person at school who has grown up on a farm,” said Vaught, who got called “corn maze boy” in high school.

Chandler Vaught often runs the hayrides that are part of their maze experience. He laughs when he pulls the tractor past the family cows and people make him stop so they can take pictures.

“It’s like they are seeing animals at the zoo,” he said.

The king of the American corn maze industry is Brett Herbst, who runs an elaborate maze in Lehi, Utah. But he makes most of his money helping other people build corn mazes.

He designed and helped cut more than 266 corn mazes this year — a record for him. He’s put mazes on fields in Poland, Canada and England, but they seem to be a most American phenomenon, he said.

His first was on some rented land in Utah 1996, when he was fresh out of agricultural business school and no idea how to make a living. He read about one in Pennsylvania while he was flipping through a farming magazine.

Herbst and his business partners grew the corn to its full size, then hacked out a path with a Weedwacker equipped with a saw blade. It was stupid, hot work.

They wised up. Now, computer-generated patterns are staked out when the corn is small enough to mow or till under. Or, as is the case in Milton, doused with a chemical that kills the corn, creating paths smooth enough for a baby stroller.

Farmers pay Herbst $3,000 to $6,000 for the service.

For large-scale farmers who grow crops on thousands of acres of agricultural land, corn mazes are not much more than something to joke about. What has come to be called agritainment remains a niche market.

But for the people whose families hold 400 or 500 acres of farmland, mazes are an important piece of an economic formula that might include pick-your-own berry patches in the summer, Christmas trees in the winter and home landscaping plants in the spring.

Kathleen Liang, an economics professor at the University of Vermont, recently asked 3,898 farms in six New England states whether they had some form of agritourism as part of their business model. From 2007 to 2011, there was a 65 percent increase.

But it is a trend not without drawbacks. Dealing with tourists can take time away from actual farming, while their cars can tear up the land.

And even just a simple maze is not enough anymore.

“The golden age of corn mazes as a stand-alone attraction peaked three or four years ago,” said Herbst, whose own corn maze complex includes an elaborate children’s playground, a live pumpkin princess and pig races. The maze itself also depicts the presidential candidates.

“Most of the guys who had stand-alones are out of business now,” he said. “You can only ride a single wave for so long. You’ve got to constantly mix it up.”

And you have got to gauge complexity, too. Something too simple bores people. Something too challenging scares people away.

“People don’t want to be in a corn maze for two hours,” Herbst said.

But attention spans vary. People in more rural areas who are comfortable spending time in the country prefer a maze that takes about an hour and 15 minutes to complete, he said.

“In a place close to New York City,” he said, “probably 20 minutes is plenty for most people.”