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Howard County family navigates a maze of agritourism

On an unseasonably warm opening weekend, several visitors exited the 7-acre corn maze at Sharp's at Waterford Farm huffing and puffing, and a tad overheated.

The 8-foot-tall withered cornstalks that wall in the maze's twisting pathway were the likely culprit, blocking breezes that could have offset the afternoon sun, surmised farm manager Cheryl Nodar.

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"The people who walk through on our first weekend are always the guinea pigs," she said. "I ask them how it went to be sure it's a good experience, and we're getting great feedback so far."

The corn maze, which debuted in 2002, is an agritourism feature that has helped attract thousands of visitors over the years to the working Glenwood farm, which dates to 1903.

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This year's maze, open Saturdays and Sundays through Nov. 2, is cut in the shape of a black bear and a coyote, inspired by recent sightings of those animals on the 530-acre property off Route 97 and in neighboring communities.

Creation of the maze has become driven by technology in recent years.

Chuck Sharp used to jump onto a tractor every spring and head to his cornfield with a handmade drawing to create each season's new design, relying on intuition to guide him in mowing down the green, knee-high stalks.

"We called that the 'eyeball method,' " said Alan Sharp, 26, who returned after college to join his parents, Chuck and Denise Sharp, in running the family farm.

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Three years ago, Alan began using the same type of hand-held Global Positioning System device he uses in his other job as an aerial surveyor to map out the curvilinear path, making the task easier and the result more precise.

He steers a riding mower, which shows up on his GPS screen as a blinking dot, along the mapped lines of the design to create a 4-foot-wide path in the field, where the corn is grown for animal feed and to make ethanol.

"It's amazingly accurate," Alan said of the process, "and it works really well for me."

But there's more to the popularity of the maze than its shape, which guests obviously can't see from the ground.

Sixty facts related to this year's theme are posted on bright yellow signs tied to cornstalks throughout the maze, with 25 questions and two possible answers appearing at crucial bends. A correct answer sends you on your way to the next stop; an incorrect response directs you to a dead end.

One question in particular — which the owners requested not be revealed — stumped many who tested their knowledge last weekend when the labyrinth opened for the season.

"We don't make it too hard, and dead ends for wrong answers aren't long," Nodar said.

Chuck Sharp insists that the working farm, which he and his wife took over in 1985, retain its authenticity, and he also closely guards its reputation as an educational experience, offering such program topics as a day in the life of a farmer.

Sharp even refuses to pave the rutted half-mile-long gravel driveway that leads to the farm, in order to retain the farm's character — despite good-natured pleas of drivers who routinely deliver busloads of students on field trips.

"I'd lose half my visitors," he said he tells the bus drivers, who serve schools from Baltimore to Washington. "That driveway is part of the experience."

He said Sharp Farm has been able to maintain its level of family-oriented activities and educational programming from year to year, a fact he's proud of, since so many farmers have come forward to claim a piece of the agritourism pie since he started out more than 30 years ago.

"It's like gas stations popping up on every corner," he said. "Every dollar spent [by the public] is greater than the year before, but there are more people sharing that money."

Chuck Sharp adds authenticity himself with his long white beard and tanned face and arms, personifying a "crusty old farmer" to some, Nodar said with a smile, quickly adding that that's a definite misconception.

"Chuck has a soft side, especially for kids who want to learn how a true farm works and who love to sit with him and help steer the tractor on hayrides to the pumpkin patch," she said.

Nodar sees to it that the farm's maze is focused on fun and learning, among her other duties seven days a week.

Josh and Carrie Bradford, who drove out from Overlea in Baltimore County last Sunday with their two sons, said they appreciated the maze's educational aspect. They also liked that Brandon, 8, and Mason, 4, didn't get frustrated trying to find their way through.

"We've been to huge mazes where they have overlook towers so employees can spot you if you get lost," Josh Bradford said. "It's better when you can figure it out yourself, because being rescued isn't fun."

Karen Stysley of Catonsville, who has three daughters and leads a Brownie troop, arrived last Sunday with other Girl Scouts and mothers to conquer the maze and enjoy the farm.

"We were impressed with the fact cards, and where there was a choice to be made, we left it totally up to the girls," she said.

"When they got the right answer, they howled like coyotes. It was a real confidence-booster for them to go through a challenge together and get through by their own wits," she said.

While the corn maze is one of the fall season's biggest draws at Sharp's at Waterford Farm, so is picking pumpkins off the vine.

A free mile-long hayride around the picturesque farm and through the waters of Cattail Creek — "the kids just love that part," Chuck Sharp said — takes visitors to the 7-acre field where about 2,500 pumpkins are grown per acre.

"We've had too much rain and this or that problem like we do every year, but Chuck is the pumpkin king," Nodar said of her employer's ability to overcome nature's obstacles.

Along with pumpkins that are often larger than the children who select them, there is a small corn maze for younger children, farm animals to visit, scarecrow-making and a country store stocked with locally made goods.

"We want to keep the farm a farm," said Alan Sharp, who is considering farming as a full-time occupation as his parents begin to talk about retiring. "Ninety percent of the people who come out here are seeking that authentic experience."

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