Maryland's fall mazes cut paths toward fun and profit

Things are quiet one recent sunny afternoon at Sharp’s at Waterford Farm, an undulating 550-acre spread in western Howard County that Chuck Sharp and his wife, Denise, have owned and operated since 1985.

The hills are thick with field corn, much of it an eye-popping 10 feet high. The guard dog that protects the crops from deer and coyote is out in the fields, asleep somewhere.

And Chuck Sharp, 69, stands at the entrance to a still-raggedy path his son, Alan, has cut through their seven-acre cornfield.

It’s an early-ish version of the corn maze the family will open to the public in less than three weeks.

“We’ll get out the mower and do our final cut in a few days,” Chuck Sharp says. “All this undergrowth you see will be gone. We don’t want anybody falling over or getting lost in there.”

Like a growing number of farmers across the United States and beyond who are looking to wring new revenue from the original seasonal business, the Sharps design, lay out and operate a corn maze as part of their business each year.

This year’s labyrinth, their 15th, will take the approximate shape of a working farm dog, in honor of the canines that have helped preserve their corn, soybeans and pumpkins over the years.

They continue the tradition, they say, because they enjoy sharing a bit of the farm life they love with those who don’t know it well, whether it's families from the nearby suburbs or the schoolchildren who visit by the busload from Baltimore or Washington.

It doesn't hurt, though, that thousands of visitors paying up to $7 a head (it’s $5 for children) over the seven-week fall season provides a healthy revenue stream in a business not known for its predictability.

“There's an old saying — 'You can make a small fortune in farming, provided you start out with a large one,’ " says Sharp, a rangy grandfather with a long white beard and a sun-reddened face.

Rising feed prices, congressional haggling over farm subsidies and droughts in several states have ratcheted up the economic pressure on farms.

Those conditions have inspired ingenuity, says Jane Eckert, a St. Louis-based consultant in agricultural marketing.

“Farmers are the biggest landowners in the country,” she says. “And more and more they’ve been asking, ‘What can we do that other people would enjoy?’ ”

One result has been an explosion in agritourism, in which farmers provide agriculture-related entertainment and experiences for paying visitors.

More than 33,000 of America’s 2.2 million farms engage in agritourism, generating $704 million in revenue annually, according to the most recent estimates by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. About 300 of Maryland's approximately 12,000 farms generate $7.2 million.

The activities can range from hayrides and pumpkin picking to lodging, hunting, fishing and all-terrain vehicle riding. Corn mazes are new enough to the scene — the nation's first appeared in Annville, Pa., in 1993 — that no one has tracked the figures very carefully. But Kamille Combs of The MAiZE, Inc., a Utah-based corn maze design-and-consulting company, estimates there will be more than 500 in the United States this year.

The MAiZe got its start in 1996 when agriculture school graduate Brett Herbst designed and cut a maze in Spring Fork, Utah. The attraction drew more than 18,000 visitors in three weeks and spawned a cottage industry.

Herbst has designed nearly 3,000 corn mazes since then, including the 282 the company is creating in the United States — and 17 in other countries — this year.

“Every maze we've done has been a farmer contacting us asking for our help, and we’ve gotten more inquiries every year,” Combs says.

At least a dozen corn mazes dot the Maryland landscape. They range from the sprawling and intricate to the intimate and quirky.

At Lawyer’s Winterbrook Farm in Thurmont, four side-by-side corn mazes fill a field of more than 30 acres. The corn maze at Summers Farm in Frederick features 2.5 miles of trails through 12 acres, complete with a pair of bridges. Sunrise Farm in Gambrills boasts lookout towers within its eight-acre labyrinth.

Like most, the farms each hire a national firm to get the maze designed and implemented.

Companies such as The MAiZe, the Idaho-based MazePlay, or the Doylestown, Pa.-based Corn Maze Guy do scores of the projects each year, taking the small, two-dimensional images submitted by clients and making them multiple-acre reality.

Most use software illustration programs to translate the images into linear arrangements of data points, patterns that can be read by GPS. Company workers then visit their clients’ farms and mow the patterns into the corn by following the lines they see on their smartphones.

It’s an improvement on the early years, when farmers took hand-drawn maps into the fields, paced off dimensions and used string to mark sections off for mowing.

Today’s approach, often accurate to within inches, can produce stunning results.

Viewed from above, recent mazes across the country have depicted farm scenes (tractors, giant ears of corn), cartoon characters (Charlie Brown, Peter Griffin), athletes (Tom Brady), singers (Taylor Swift) and the logos of sports teams (the Redskins, the Ravens). Designers boast that it can take visitors hours to navigate their twists, turns and dead ends.

This year's mazes at Lawyer's Winterbrook Farm will incorporate images related to the site’s 95-year history. The paths at Sunrise Farm will depict Curious George in honor of the beloved character's 75th birthday.

At Sharp’s, a family business with roots dating back to 1903, the proprietors try to keep things a little more down to earth.

“You can really only see those designs from high in the air, by drone or airplane,” Chuck Sharp says. “We’re more interested in what people go through on the ground.”

The process is never perfect, Sharp says, though the designs do look “a lot like” what the farm sets out to create.

The process begins in May each year, when the Sharps plant their maze corn. That’s about a month later than farmers generally plant corn for harvest.

The timing allows the crop to attain its fullest height and thickness just before the fall season begins, says Alan Sharp, who took over maze installation duties from his father several years ago.

He enhances the effect by planting in double rows, making it harder for guests to see through the final product — and the abundant rainfall of the past few months provided further fuel.

Cheryl Nodar, events coordinator at the farm, then brainstorms ideas for themes and does rough sketches.

Past images at Sharp’s have included an eagle, a cow and a bear — icons that lend themselves to the kind of agricultural education programs the farm offers in the form of posters and informal talks.

They have yet to hire a design firm. Alan, a pilot who uses GPS technology in his work for an aerial traffic survey company, renders Nodar’s design idea in the appropriate software. In early June or so, he gets out the family riding mower and a handheld device, follows the linear path it displays and cuts a swath four feet wide through the field.

Because the corn keeps growing, it's necessary to return and do two recuts over the the next few weeks, Alan says, the last about two weeks before opening weekend.

On a family farm, everyone has many roles to play. There was so much to do this year, Alan says, that he didn't get to the first cut until early July, when the corn was five feet high.

That pass left the plant material deeper than usual inside the design, necessitating the final, reverse-direction cut he plans to complete next week.

“You want all the material out of there by the time you open so people don't have to navigate through the corn stubble and stalks," he says.

The final image at Sharp’s is rarely as pristine as the ones at the farms that have their mazes cut professionally. But it’s close enough for the proprietors.

They’re more interested, Nodar says, in writing up the educational signs they post throughout the maze — this year, they’ll be about herding and guard dogs — and making sure guests get an authentic sense of the farming life.

The maze opens Sept. 23 and will remain open through the second weekend in November.

The farm also features pumpkin picking, campfires, an observation beehive, a hayride through a creek and programs about the lives of farmers and pilgrims.

The Sharps don’t work dead ends into their mazes these days. They quit the practice a few years ago when an elderly woman got lost in the corn and had to place a cell-phone call to Nodar to be rescued.

Chuck decided that wasn’t a very neighborly scene. He strokes his beard and nods toward this year’s labyrinth-in-the-making.

“It doesn’t help when they go in and don’t come back out again,” he says.

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