Corn mazes are a staple of autumnal agritourism. It can be a vast undertaking, though, to lay down the intricate trails through fields of corn, sometimes forming charming pictures when viewed from the sky. Even for farmers who have healthy fields of corn, the process of how to make a corn maze — the artistry, the management and how to execute the maze itself — can seem daunting.
Some farms contract companies to set up corn mazes on their land. Companies like MAiZE and Precision Mazes, which both work with clients across the country (and sometimes internationally), handle drawing, licensing and laying out the corn maze’s design. They often use GPS systems and guided tractors — precision agriculture meets agritourism.
Other farms will construct their own corn mazes. Treworgy Family Orchard in Levant, Maine, hand-draws their maze design every year before painting the planned trails on their fields in the spring. Before the corn germinates, they mow along the lines with a weighted tractor to create the trails.
For fine-tuning and details, the family will fly a drone over the maze and cut down individual stalks with a machete until the maze matches the drawing.
“Each plant is like a pixel,” said Jonathan Kenerson, CEO of Treworgy Family Orchards.
Mike Bordreu, co-owner of The Great Vermont Corn Maze, said that their annual maze also starts on a piece of graph paper, though his method for making the design a reality in the field varies slightly from the Maine-based maze.
“It’s a 21-year-old process that works with our family,” Bordreu said. “The actual building is about a three-month process. We go out there with a 200-foot tape measure, a piece of graph paper and a stick and we hand-pick. Most [corn maze operators] go through with a tractor and make some quick trails with a big rototiller.”
Laying out the corn maze by hand allows for more flexibility in creating challenges throughout the maze.
“You can put a picture in corn field if you have any artistic ability,” Bordreu said. “It’s about making it a challenge.”
Though his method is especially labor-intensive, Bordreu said it has some advantages over the high-tech ways of building corn mazes, particularly when it comes to coping with unexpected changes in the field.
“It seems pretty risky if you only stick to what’s in the GPS system,” Bordreu said. “This year we lost [an] area to an underwater spring and we had to replant all that by hand. If I was just following a computer program, it would have been a mess.”
Maintaining a corn maze
Even after a corn maze is set up, the farmers hosting the corn maze still have work to do throughout the season.
“Once it’s there, it’s a matter of keeping the trails clear,” Kenerson said.
Trail maintenance is central to maintaining a corn maze. Bordreu said that trail maintenance involves a range of things.
“We go through and remove all the stubble, and on every trail, we pack it down,” Bordreu explained. “Once we create it, it’s about getting weeds and leaves out of people’s faces. You want to make sure the trails are as walkable as possible.”
Maintaining a corn maze properly is a time commitment for the farmers who manage it.
“We do about six to eight hours of trail maintenance every week,” Bordreu said. “With the current change in the weather, we have a lot more weeds than we used to, so we also do three to four hours of weed whacking every week.”
Managing a corn maze
Even if a corn maze is designed and maintained well, farmers need to consider many other management elements to ensure the maze’s success.
“It’s all a business,” Bordreu said. “Can you figure out how to pay for port-o-potties? Is there space for parking?
Marketing is also essential. Even though the Great Vermont Corn Maze has been open for over two decades, Bordreu said that people in the area still ask him what, exactly, his farm is up to every fall.
“We spend two to six hours on the computer every day,” Bordreu said. “You have to have a website and do really well with the public. I get no sleep from now until November 1.”
Coupling the maze with other agritourism activities can also help attract visitors. Treworgy Family Orchards also offers apple picking, hayrides and a pick-your-own pumpkin patch alongside their annual autumnal corn maze.
“We provide experiences for families,” Kenerson said. “[The corn maze] was a really great addition to that. If a farm across the street were to just do a corn maze, it wouldn’t have the same effect. It’s part of the overall experience.”
Bordreu also said that maintaining strict rules is essential to ensure visitors do not destroy the corn maze. Restrictions against smoking and drinking, for example, not only keep the corn maze family-friendly, but prevent fires and accidents in the maze.
“Once people destroy the corn, you can’t repair it,” Bordreu said. “[If you] put [a corn maze] up and think that everybody is going to behave, you’re dreaming.”
Staffing can help enforcing the rules and helping people out who get lost.
“We have at least two staff in the corn all day long because it’s that complicated,” Bordreu said.
Kenerson agreed that rules are important, but had a more optimistic view of his clientele. Treworgy Family Orchard’s maze has a list of rules posted at the entrance, but does not have staff stationed throughout the maze to monitor behavior.
“Our entire business model is built on trust,” he said. “When people are extended trust they rise to meet that. I’d rather run a business that way.”
Corn mazes also suffer from the paradox that visitors think of corn mazes as an autumnal activity, but corn is healthiest in August.
“Everybody wants to talk about mazing in the fall,” Bordreu said. “Mazing in August is the best. It’s thick, it’s green and it’s tall. If you come in October there’s a darn good chance that it will be closed. We’ve had ice [in our maze] in October, and we always get an inch of snow.”
Cold weather can compromise the quality of the maze experience, but many mazes — like Treworgy Family Orchards — will stay open until the beginning of November.
“In the end of October, we will get hit with a frost and the maze will be a bunch of sticks,” Kenerson added. “As long as it’s upright, it’s working.”
Is having a corn maze right for you?
Bordreu warned against farmers viewing corn mazes as a way to make easy money.
“It’s not a way to save the family farm,” Bordreu said. “We have lots of farmers come visit us. We show them the magnitude of what we’re doing, and I’ve never seen more depressed people walk away.”
The location also matters, especially when it comes to proximity to any other corn mazes.
“If there is already a corn maze within about two hours of you, then don’t make a corn maze,” Bordreu said. “We have had about 15 open and close around us over the last 21 years.”
Corn mazes are also weather dependent. Kenerson remembers weekend after weekend of rain during the fall of 2012, which made for an especially difficult season at Treworgy Family Orchards.
“Being a farmer is a very vulnerable way of life,” he said. “We as farmers are very dependent on the weather. It’s like any other crop.”
The quality of your soil also matters.
“Our soil drains incredibly,” Bordreu said. “If you’re a mud bath for two days after it rains, you just lost half your season.”
The corn maze management may not suit farmers who were attracted to certain qualities of the profession in the first place. Bordreu said that having a corn maze on your farm is much more customer service and promotion than spending time outdoors.
“If you’re a typical farmer and happy with cows, [you may not be] apt to jump on social media and interact with the public,” Bordreu said. “If it’s going to make you more than a dollar, you’re going to be on the computer all day long.”