10/6/2012 7:00 AM
By Jennifer Hetrick Southeastern Pa. Correspondent
BOYERTOWN, Pa. — This fall, Wilcox Farms in Douglass Township, Berks County, Pa., is celebrating its ninth year of having one of the largest and most involved corn mazes in the southeastern part of the state.
Back in 1946, Gene and Mary Wilcox began to farm the land, growing mass amounts of tomatoes for Campbell Soup Company’s cannery in Camden, N.J.
Today, Gene, 90, still farms the land by handling tractor work in the fields. The farm property totals around 200 acres, part of it a woodland. At least 170 acres are farmed, largely encompassed by corn and some vegetables, explained Steve Schultz, 46, who is Gene and Mary’s grandson.
Besides corn maze activities, the farm operates an on-farm store selling all kinds of seasonal vegetables and milk as well as autumn decorations and Christmas greenery. The farm also features an ice-cream parlor, flea market and children’s mazes, provides tractor hayrides, pick-your-own pumpkins and space for birthday parties and field trips.
The family has noticed that selling decorative cornstalks and autumn decor are an especially big hit in their area.
The family works together in running the farm, not often hiring outside help but rather doling out daily labors to family members.
Some of the family’s biggest challenges in making a living off the farmland are typical — for example, knowing how much of a certain product or type of produce to have to meet the capricious demands of consumers.
“Just knowing that we needed more of a draw and more activities is what made us move into agritainment,” Steve said about adding corn mazes.
His mother, Judy Schultz, 67 — whose parents started the farm 66 years ago after moving from Quakertown, Pa. — runs the farm’s store and manages the admission and fees for the separate children’s corn maze.
The corn mazes require a lot of attention from the family in its agricultural efforts, because the larger maze prepared each year has eight miles of trails stretching across 25 acres. It is created in three different sections with a mix of field corn varieties.
One of Judy’s daughters, Kathy Bartman, 38, pays a pilot from an airport in Pottstown, Pa., to fly her over the fields each year so that she can photograph the themes that have been shaped into the beckoning rows of cornstalks.
These images are used to help market the maze to schools around the region for field trips. A glossy postcard is made out of it so that those who visit the farm can see the different themes of the past mazes.
Some of the prior themes used for the large corn maze have been: a day at the beach; an amusement park; Noah’s Ark; under the big top circus; and under the sea. This year’s theme is the Wizard of Oz.
A smaller and less complicated maze for children is about one mile of trails and encompasses four acres not far from the farm market.
Its themes are always related to animals, including a pig, an elephant, a lobster, a giraffe, a koala and a “wild thing” creature. A turtle is the theme for this fall.
“The first two years, we didn’t do a kids’ maze,” Steve said. “But we have a lot of nurseries and daycares that visit, and they like the small maze with the swingset play area, and then we take them on a hay ride.”
A maze of hay bales is also behind the market.
While church groups and Boy Scout troops regularly visit, the mazes are often booked for birthday parties. Fire pits and benches located around the main maze provide a resting spot for groups which can stop to roast marshmallows and hot dogs before diving back into traveling the trails.
Steve manages the large maze and sells beverages, candy and chips, which are often something people crave while spending long stretches of time in the maze.
Before and after hitting the paths, maze-goers can also order their favorite flavor of hand-dipped ice cream sold and scooped by Judy in the ice-cream parlor.
These food add-ons and the maze sales together account for about one-third of the farm’s income each year, Judy said.
Security staff walks through the maze routinely to make sure everything is kept safe and in order.
One of Judy’s other daughter’s, Beth Schultz, 42, is responsible for the kids’ maze.
“With both of the mazes, there’s a game called Farm Scene Investigation (FSI),” Steve said. “It’s a game like Clue. You go through the large maze, and there are six checkpoints that have an FSI map. At each checkpoint, you need to eliminate an animal, a location and a weapon. Basically, something happened to Farmer Joe, and you have to narrow down who did it, where and with what.”
The kids’ maze has a similar and playfully challenging game more geared toward young children’s skill levels.
Steve said that many maze-goers have excitedly told him how much they enjoy the investigation games and that they’d like to see them incorporated again each autumn.
Sometimes people do get lost in the larger maze and will call the farm storefront from their cell phones, mentioning what checkpoint they’re nearest to, asking to be rescued.
Weather can also have a major impact on the corn maze.
“A concern that we have every year is the weather,” Steve said. “This year we started out very dry, but then were lucky and got occasional rain to keep things growing.”
Last year’s weather was also a concern. According to Steve, in 2011 they had a wet spring which caused problems getting the crops planted. Then came drought conditions, keeping the corn short. A hurricane in August caused damage to the maze that had to be repaired. And, finally, there was snow at the end of October.
“It was very weird having a birthday party being held at the large maze in the middle of a snow storm,” he said.
The corn maze designs come from Shawn Stolworthy of MazePlay, based in Firth, Idaho. His company cuts the designs out in the Wilcox Farm’s cornfields. Stolworthy is also the creator behind the FSI game.
The family discovered Stolworthy simply through an Internet search years ago, stumbling upon his website, www.mazeplay.com. His closest other mazes are in Robesonia, Pa., and Easton, Pa.
“We decide what we want the maze to be and send our ideas to him, and his team lays it out and makes sure they have enough miles on the paths,” Judy said.
The visualized design is then sent to the family for approval, and once they give their okay, everything is finalized.
“Then, (Stolworthy) can pull in, park, get his tractor out and he’s ready to go,” Judy said.
“He cuts a mile of corn an hour, almost rototilling it,” Steve said.
“Stolworthy uses GPS and a laptop computer for measurements,” Steve said. “The first time he cut our maze, the first thing that he did was drive around the maze and record the measurements of the maze. Once he had the measurements of the maze, he knew how to lay out the maze. Each year he re-measures the field to make sure the coordinates are accurate.”
The larger maze is open on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays from mid-September until late November. The hours are 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., but it is open until midnight in the warmer part of the season.
Wilcox Farm charges $8 per person and $6 per person for groups of 10 or more in the big maze.
The kids’ maze is open from mid-August until the end of November and is accessible daily, with a cost of $5 per person.
But the admission tickets last all day, even if people leave and come back. Steve said a lot of people like the opportunity to walk through the mazes in sunshine and then return later under the moonlight.
To find out more about Wilcox Farms, visit www.wilcoxfamilyfarm.com or call 610-367-2387.