How farmers make corn mazes

Planting begins in the spring, but inspiration comes around July, the peak of summer, as farmers gaze at acres of haphazardly planted corn stalks, waiting to be sculpted into an interactive work of art that has also become a key ingredient in solid financial success.

Over the past two decades, since the mid-1990s, corn mazes have become one of the newer features of family farms. Often times, the younger generations who are about to take over the farm are the ones tasked with not only manifesting the maze, but also keeping the farm up to date with modern agritourism trends.

John Wright, owner of the Wright family farm in the picturesque hills of Warwick, Orange County, says agrotourism is an important part of the evolution of agriculture. And the festivals that encompass pumpkin picking, hay walks, apple cannons, games, treats and, of course, the corn maze, are one of the biggest events of all.

“You know, the funny thing is that growing up hay was a job,” Wright said. “But when my oldest was in school 30-40 years ago, I was pretty involved in PTA and they did this carnival thing. I volunteered, said I would be happy to help, and they asked if I could take a cart ride. I said, ‘I can, but I don’t know why anyone would want to do this.’ Then it was crazy popular. So I’m like ‘OK, what do I know?’

“It was long before this idea of ​​agrotourism was a thing,” he continued. “The pumpkin patch and the corn maze were some of the first things we did, they’re still the most popular. And now we add a few more things every year to keep it looking new.

At the Rhinebeck-based Kesicke family farm, the corn maze and the fall festival in general may one day be the last tradition in operation. Frank Vosburgh Sr., the owner, raised three children on the farm who are helping to organize the annual six-weekend fall festival. When he retires, that’s the only part of farming they want to continue.

Corn mazes are a key draw in these festivities, and making a good one is key.

Crisscrossing rows of corn for labyrinths

Most farms use grain corn for their maze. “Sweet corn puts all of its energy into making corn taste great,” said John Kelder. “Grain corn makes the stalks stand up well. “

Kelder Farm

Considered the master designer, John Kelder is the 12th generation of his family who takes care of Kelder’s Farm. Founded in 1779, the bicentennial gem of Kerhonkson in County Ulster is easy to spot as visitors are greeted at the entrance to Route 209 by Gnome Chomsky – a towering 13-foot lawn ornament that the Guinness Book of records once named the largest extant (a feat that has since been broken).

Farm owner John’s father Chris Kelder said they were the first to adapt to the corn maze, building their first in 1996. “We were already growing pumpkins and it seemed like a nice activity to add, ”he said. “People are looking for things to do outside as a family, that’s kind of how the culture has evolved.”

Every year, it all starts for the Kelders in early May when they take a corn planter to a six-acre field in the valley below their farm, scattering about 30,000 seeds per acre. Wright said the corn for the mazes is planted in an atypical way – crisscrossing rows instead of maintaining straight lines to form a wall of leaves that wanderers can’t see through.

“We use grain corn,” Chris explained. “And the reason is that sweet corn is shorter corn; it does not grow very high. It is a weaker and weaker plant.

John added, “Sweet corn puts all its energy into making corn taste great. Corn for grain keeps the stalks together.

John builds the corn maze with a different pattern each year. It’s a process he usually begins a few days before cutting the labyrinthine paths in July, when the stems have reached knee height. Using grid paper, with each block representing a 3-foot square on the ground, they sketch out a design to use as a map.

Typically, John takes his younger cousins’ comments into account while determining what fall or farm theme he would like to see incorporated into the maze. They are, he laughs, the artists of the Kelder clan.

Between bouncing around ideas and finalizing the design, he said it was a pretty quick process that can be completed in a day or two. Hard work comes with mowing, especially if he’s out in the field and realizes the design won’t work with the terrain – sometimes he had to stop halfway to make changes to the map.

This year’s maze is shaped like a pumpkin. It may take 15 minutes or several hours for the maze walkers to complete, depending on their level of wisdom and whether they are distracted by the toys and forts built into them. John aims to make it difficult by incorporating many identical dead ends and corners, but not so difficult that visitors get frustrated.

Either way, he’s guaranteed to go on a “rescue mission” several times a season, he laughed, when a lost soul calls for help in midfield.

John Kelder’s method is relatively standard in the world of corn maze design. Frank Vosburgh, Jr., however, is not.

At Kesicke Farm, Frank Vosburgh, Jr. approaches the 10 acres of tall stems as if a fresh layer of snow had fallen overnight – untouched, unblemished, waiting for footprints, snow angels and snowflakes. sleigh tracks make their mark. He did not sketch a plan; it’s all in his head as he flies, moving and cutting wherever the wind takes him.

The sound of the zero-turn mower he drives – faster and more maneuverable than a tractor – is his meditation. He doesn’t even put on his headphones while sculpting art in the field for at least two hours.

Frank Vosburgh, Jr.’s designs are clearly difficult, his sister Lisa Vosburgh said. Every year, as patrons leave their Fall Festival weekend, she hears the same comeback: They can’t finish the maze. Only a few a year succeed; regulars often come back for a second shot.

Wright’s mazes at his Warwick farm are elaborate – this year’s creation features nursery rhyme characters, with a cow leaping over a moon and a cat playing the violin.

Frank Vosburgh Sr. raised three children who were all involved in organizing the annual six-weekend Kesicke Farm Fall Festival, where their 10-acre maze is a key feature.  When he retires, the festival is the only part of farming the next generation wants to pursue.

Frank Vosburgh Sr. raised three children who were all involved in organizing the annual six-weekend Kesicke Farm Fall Festival, where their 10-acre maze is a key feature. When he retires, the festival is the only part of farming the next generation wants to pursue.

Kesicke farm

Aside from planting nearly 10 acres on two corn fields, her family doesn’t create the maze themselves. Outside Utah contractors, The MAiZE, come every summer to design and build it. He said they used a similar method to John Kelder’s farm: they sketch on grid paper designating each box in 20 rows, then they place flags in the field to demarcate each box and cut the paths. section by section.

Wright spends $ 2,500 per year on the service of the company. Ultimately, he believes that contracting them ensures the maze will be done right and saves his family at least a week’s work. In addition, financially, it pays off.

While all the farmers were reluctant to discuss the exact income from their corn mazes, they echoed similar sentiments about their importance. Kelder said fall tourism accounts for about 70% of their profits. Visitors pay $ 15 for access on fall weekends, $ 12 on weekdays.

“This is what keeps us going,” said Frank Vosburgh, Sr., referring to their fall tourist season. “Do well or undone that year. “

In a good year, Wright said the farm hosted 10,000 attendees, paying $ 17 for the full set of attractions. That doesn’t include visitors coming for the pumpkin patch, which he says is probably their most popular feature. The corn maze, however, is very close.

Related: Corn Mazes To Get Lost In

“The three big things people come for are our animals they can feed, the corn maze, and the wagon rides,” Lisa said of Kesicke Farm, which charges $ 8 for the corn maze or $ 15. $ for a set of attractions. “Every year we have more and more people coming from further and further afield. We get a lot of people from below by [NYC], and the corn maze has a lot to do with it. I think they want a place where they can do a lot of these things, but at a lower cost. “

Much of fall’s success depends on Mother Nature’s notoriously fickle, a tough line to weed. While rainy weekends don’t necessarily deter all business – Wright recalled a few years ago when it opened in pouring rain just so a customer could propose in the middle of the pumpkin – the cute stories are not enough to overcome the financial loss.

“You know, you can do everything right and then the weather adjusts to your farm,” Wright said. He’s worried about his pumpkins this year and worries whether they’ll hold up after two tropical storms have raged.

“We are just hoping for nice weekends in the fall. Rain can come on Wednesday, ”said Chris Kelder with a laugh.

Despite the recent downpours, at the start of the season in early September, the corn on farms in the area blooms with a vibrant green glow. By Halloween, the stems will have dried to a yellowish-brown tint.

Nothing is lost. The corn will be pulled from the ground with a combine harvester and used as farm animal feed for months to come, when the fields freeze over and temporarily turn into a snowy landscape.

Then it melts; springs comes back once more. And the Hudson Valley farmers are starting over, preparing to build on their new tradition.

Waterfall in the Hudson Valley

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About Marco C. Nichols

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