Dave Vierra started small. As a sideshow to his popular West Sacramento pumpkin patch, he planted his first corn maze 12 years ago. It covered a mere half an acre.
But just like field corn, it quickly grew – and grew. Now, his Dave’s Pumpkin Patch and Cornival boasts two corn mazes. The larger maze uses 10 acres as a canvas and has corporate partners’ logos carved into the corn. The other 2 acres of maze are “haunted” for weekend tours, staffed by more than 40 volunteer zombies and other characters.
In addition to the mazes, the Vierra Farm has a 40-by-60-foot air-filled pillow for jumping, corn containers for playing and hay bales for climbing. His Cornival also features a “Pumpkin Princess Castle,” pig races, pony rides, hay rides and pumpkin chuckin’ cannons.
“It’s all the stuff we used to do as kids,” said Vierra, a lifelong farmer. “As a kid, you walked into the cornfield at night and a friend would jump out to try and scare you. You’d jump into a pile of straw or climb on top of haystacks; who doesn’t like that? It’s all about fun activities involving farming.”
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Agritainment – making agriculture a form of entertainment for the non-farming masses – has become an impetus for small family farms to open their gates each fall and invite customers in to do more than just pick pumpkins. And few activities are more popular, or offer more potential financial upside, than corn mazes.
“It’s a struggle for the small family farm to survive through traditional farming,” said Kamille Combs of The MAiZE Inc., a design and consulting business that creates hundreds of mazes nationwide each Halloween season, including for Dave’s Pumpkin Patch. “Most of the people we work with are family farmers who have lived on their land for years and years. They’re trying to hold on to that land. There’s definitely a lot of work in trying to set up something like a corn maze, and there’s no guarantee of profit. It’s a lot like farming itself.”
The corn-maze craze has spawned businesses that do nothing but help farmers build and operate mazes, and Utah-based MAiZE leads that list. The company, which features a portfolio of more than 2,000 finished mazes, negotiates its prices with each farm, charging either a flat fee for services or a percentage of potential profits. For example, Vierra Farms paid “under $2,000” for its two mazes. That includes $595 for cutting plus travel expenses for The MAiZE crew from Utah.
“We’ll do more than 250 (mazes) this year,” Combs said. “Every year, we’ve seen more and more mazes springing up.”
Corn mazes may seem like old-fashioned entertainment, but they’ve gone decidedly high-tech. Mazes are designed on a computer, using the corn rows like straight lines on a graph. Often, GPS is used to map out the trails (as well as help people eventually navigate) in growing fields of corn. The paths are mowed or tamped down when the corn is ankle high.
Vierra expects about 30,000 patrons to stop by his pumpkin patch and Cornival by Halloween night. But over the years, competition has grown more fierce, and owners have had to up the “wow factor” with their maze designs.
“When I started, we were the only corn maze around here,” said Vierra, who opened his annual pumpkin patch business 23 years ago. “Now, there are corn mazes all over the place.”
More than a dozen corn mazes dot the Sacramento region. Although it sounds like a generations-old tradition, the Halloween corn maze is a relatively new (and all-American) phenomenon, first surfacing in the early 1990s, according to Corn Mazes America, a contractor that specializes in helping farms make mazes. By 2008, more than 800 mazes nationwide had become annual traditions. This year’s count will top 1,000, with the highest concentrations in the Northeast and Great Lakes states.
Most mazes are between 4 and 10 acres (for comparison, a football field measures about 1.3 acres). However, what’s billed as the world’s largest maze, Cool Patch Pumpkins’ 53-acre corn complex, is just off Interstate 80 in nearby Dixon. (Guinness Book of World Records officially crowned it the king of all mazes in 2007.)
“Thousands have braved the maze over the past few years, so we continue to try and outdo ourselves each season to keep it challenging for our guests,” said co-owner Mark Cooley.
Brothers Matt and Mark Cooley started the giant maze in 2001 as a way to attract more customers to their freeway-side pumpkin patch business. They hand-draw their design – this year’s map features dozens of interlocking circles around a bracket-like central maze – then transfer the rough outline to a digital document for cutting and eventually making maps. When the corn is only a few inches tall, they enlist local basketball and soccer teams to help cut the maze.
But a giant maze is not enough; Cool Patch also offers a teepee village, scarecrow contest and adult tricycle rentals as part of its Halloween extravaganza.
At Dave’s Pumpkin Patch, customers expect more every year, Vierra said. This season, he installed a new zip-line attraction over the corn plus a free photo booth where visitors can snap their pictures and immediately post them to Facebook.
“People always want something new,” Vierra said. “You’ve got to keep it fresh. It’s like Disneyland always adding rides and attractions. If you stay the same, it can get stale and there’s no reason to come back.”
Maze builders use long-maturing field corn so the stalks stay green as long as possible. Once Halloween is past, this crop becomes cattle feed. The MAiZE experts estimate that farms can make $5,000 to $50,000 from an average maze, depending on location. By contrast, the yield from an acre of field corn sells for less than $1,000; it costs about $500 to plant.
Mazes have added costs such as insurance and security. That can add thousands to the final price. But farmers view it as another crop with added interest: fun.
“I plant my corn Aug. 13,” said Vierra, who also grows tons of Halloween pumpkins found in local supermarkets and several other crops. “In 60 days, it’s 8 feet tall. That’s perfect for a maze.”
Vierra uses the maze design as a way to involve his farm’s corporate partners. In exchange for advertising, the logos of Raley’s, Bel Air and Nob Hill supermarkets as well as country radio station KNCI 105.1 are featured in this year’s layout.
The MAiZE designers receive all sorts of interesting requests, Combs said. They’ve created mazes that resemble celebrities including John Wayne and Scooby-Doo. “We did the world’s biggest QR code,” she said. “When people scanned its picture with their smartphones, they were taken to the company’s website.”
When building mazes, designers learn that too many tricks is no treat.
“Over the years, we found out that if you put in too many dead-ends, people get frustrated,” Combs said.
The best advice for maze visitors? “Don’t over-question yourself,” she said. “Adults tend to think too much at each decision point. Don’t stop and deliberate. Kids always make it through mazes faster than adults because they just go.”