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Corn maze mayhem: Farmers go above and beyond to attract fall visitors

A look at how one of our favorite fall pastimes – the corn maze – comes together.

It takes most people two hours to complete a series of corn mazes at Lawyer's Winterbrook Farm — maybe 40 minutes if you're really an expert.

But for those responsible for the maze, it's more of a yearlong effort. And, as families flock to corn mazes across the state each fall, it's not enough for farmers to till any old zig-zagging pattern through cornfields anymore.

Within the past decade, corn mazes have become much more intricate, forming images of local sports mascots, celebrities, presidential candidates and other notable figures. Locally, mazes have taken the shape of pop star Taylor Swift, Gov. Larry Hogan and the Oriole Bird.

"There are many more corn mazes throughout the state now, and it has gotten bigger. They are more sophisticated, and there are more activities each year," said Marian Fry, 65, a fifth-generation farmer and partner of MD Sunrise Farm in Gambrills. This year, Sunrise's maze is one of 90 across the country to feature a "Peanuts" theme, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the TV special "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown."

"Now, I find myself being an event planner, which was never a part of my training or my job description or how I thought of myself," Fry said.

For many farmers, the corn maze has also become one of the most profitable forms of agricultural tourism — or "agritourism" — and a primary source of income. And as competition in the region heats up and corn maze designs become more involved, farmers are looking for any edge they can get to set themselves apart.

Most turn to national companies to map out, design and cut their trails, as well as provide marketing support.

Lawyer's Winterbrook Farm in Thurmont, one of the largest mazes in the state, uses Idaho-based agricultural company Mazeplay to craft its 35-acre fields, which boast five mazes in one, 8.2 miles of trails and 24 checkpoints.

"When we select our corn maze theme as a farm, we've always tried to think outside the box," said Lawyer's co-owner Taylor Huffman, 23, noting that the farm looks for a "theme that has a message or relates to what goes on around us" to draw in attendees. The farm gained attention last year with its "Hogan Strong" design, supporting the Maryland governor during his cancer treatment.

This year, Lawyer's maze trails pay tribute to emergency responders, featuring images of a nurse, a firefighter, a police officer and a canine along with an ambulance, fire truck and police car — all inscribed into the corn field with the words "Our Heroes" and "Thanks." (The farm is also offering $2 off admission for the rest of the year for those involved in service.)

"We wanted the public to be reminded that we do have heroes around us every day, and we wanted to pay tribute to that," Huffman said.

Lawyer's has worked with Mazeplay's designers and owner Shawn Stolworthy, 46, for the past 15 years to create designs for the field. The farm brainstorms themes and solicits public input in the winter, which gives Mazeplay enough time to get approval for logos and designs that might have copyrights.

Stolworthy travels in a mobile home from the middle of May to the end of September, cutting mazes around the country. He started his corn maze business 18 years ago after finding a way to use GPS technology and tractors to create elaborate corn mazes with precision, he said.

This year alone, Stolworthy's company has cut 108 mazes, including the Kilby Cream corn maze in Rising Sun and the Rodgers' Farm mazes in Stevenson.

Mazeplay's finished product at Lawyer's was a success, Huffman said. During the maze's opening weekend in September, over 150 families visited the maze and took part in the farm's various other fall festivities, including the pumpkin cannons, campfires and mini-ziplines — attractions that help earn additional income from the farm, Huffman said.

"I don't think you can just sustain off of farming your own land, and agritourism is a great" way to make money, she said.

Jeff Greenwood, who manages the 12-acre Summers Farm corn maze in Frederick with his wife, Teresa Summers Greenwood, said he makes 95 percent of his yearly profit from the corn maze.

But "you gotta be a little crazy," to be in the business, he said.

Summers Farm has been known to feature some of the most creative corn mazes in the region, drawing in tens of thousands of visitors per year and the occasional nod from a celebrity. (Summers' maze designed in Swift's likeness last year drew a shoutout from the pop star on Instagram.)

In past election years, the Greenwoods have attempted to inspire visitors to vote via their maze — featuring Barack Obama and John McCain in 2008 and Obama and Mitt Romney in 2012. But the farm "wanted no part of" the election this year, Greenwood said, instead going for an Orioles-themed maze.

The Orioles' season-ending loss to the Toronto Blue Jays in the American League wild card game hasn't put a damper on business at Summers. But there are other factors out of farmers' control that can be a concern — namely, weather.

Droughts can make it difficult to plant corn in time for corn maze season, and heavy winds can blow corn flat, said Huffman, of Lawyer's. Farms hosting mazes typically close when it rains, in fear of the grounds becoming too slippery and unsafe for guests, Greenwood said.

"It puts a hurting on the business for sure," Greenwood said. "Your livelihood is put into six weeks, and so our life revolves around this. Weather controls everything. If it was sunny every single day, then it'd be easy. That's not the case."

Nancy Mullinix, co-owner of the Mullinix Corn Maze in the Glenwood area, has closed her corn maze for a total of three days because of rain since opening in September. The maze is only open Friday through Sunday.

"It's a gamble, because you put quite a bit of money into it. The weather, it can kill ya," said Mullinix.

The 56-year-old and her husband have been hosting the 10-acre maze for the past seven years; this year, it has a "Battle of the Beltway" theme, featuring Ravens and Washington Redskins designs with pitstops revealing tidbits of football trivia.

The Mullinix corn maze has a "low-key atmosphere," compared to some of the other mazes in the region, "but it's enough to keep people busy," Mullinix said.

Like most of her competitors, Mullinix offers attractions in addition to the main corn maze, such as a no-left-turn maze, a kids maze and pumpkin bowling. At Summers Farm, there are live pig races, cable swings and apple blasters (air compressed guns that shoot apples). And Sunrise Farm in Gambrills has a petting zoo, cow train and pony rides.

But the corn maze itself remains the biggest draw. And while there's still a few weekends left in this corn maze season, Greenwood and other farmers are already thinking ahead to next year's designs.

Their business depends on it.

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If you go

Summers Farm: Open through Oct. 31. 1 p.m.-7 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays; 1 p.m.-10:30 p.m. Fridays; 10 a.m.-10:30 p.m. Saturdays; 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Sundays. 5620 Butterfly Lane, Frederick. $7.95-$13.95; free for kids ages 2 and under. summersfarm.com.

Mullinix Corn Maze: Open through Oct. 30. 3 p.m.-10 p.m. Fridays (Last ticket sold at 9 p.m.); 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays (Last ticket sold at 5 p.m.). 15115-15165 Carrs Mill Road, Cooksville. $9; free for ages under 3. mullinixcornmaze.com.

Lawyer's Winterbrook Farm: Open through Nov. 6. For the farm (pumpkin cannons close one hour earlier): 5 p.m.-11 p.m. Fridays; 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Saturdays 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Sundays. For the pumpkin patch: 11 a.m.- 6 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. 13001 Creagerstown Road, Thurmont. $3-$7. winterbrookfarmsmd.com.

MD Sunrise Farm: Open through Oct. 30. 3:30 p.m.-6:30 p.m. Friday; 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Saturdays; 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Sundays. 100 Dairy Lane, Gambrills. $6-$12. Some activities cost extra. mdsunrisefarm.com

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