Corn Maze Owners Nearly Lose Way in Storms

10/1/2011 10:00 AM
By Chris Torres Staff Writer

Pumpkins are at a premium this season. Just ask 18-year-old Taylor Lawyer, who helps run her family’s corn maze and pumpkin patch in Thurmont, Md. She found herself paying $1.80 for Mystic pumpkins Tuesday at the Shippensburg Produce Auction, which in a normal year cost 30 to 50 cents each.

“There is definitely a shortage up here,” she said by phone Tuesday.

Getting affordable pumpkins is the latest challenge she and her family have had getting ready for the big corn maze season that starts this weekend. She is hoping an elaborate Transformers-themed corn maze will bring the crowds, but the wet start to the season has her nervous.

Many farmers with similar businesses can relate.

The September flooding, coupled with an already challenging growing season, has meant a slow start to what is normally a bustling time of year for agritainment.

Some corn mazes, such as Seyfert’s Corn Maze in Lebanon County, are opening later than normal as a result of the muddy corn fields.

Leon Seyfert, co-owner of Seyfert’s Corn Maze, said the family is lucky to be opening the business, even though it will be a week late.

“It was the only field that didn’t get hurt. It was the last planted, but it had the most strength,” Seyfert said. “We have a lot of bookings already for groups. I think if it ever dries off, we’ll be alright. It’s wet enough,”

Hugh McPherson, who co-owns Maize Quest Fun Park near Shrewsbury, Pa., wonders whether the weather will ever clear up in time to get people to run through his Robin Hood-themed corn maze.

“It has certainly put off attendance. When it’s raining, you’re done,” McPherson said.

The rain has already forced him to close the maze on three separate Fridays during September, meaning a lot of people who normally would come out and spend their money decided to stay home.

McPherson and his family have designed corn mazes for 70 different farms in the country, mostly in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic.

Many other farmers he knows are telling him the same story.

“What people are saying to me is the same kind of thing. They are concerned about sales so far. But the busy season is coming. It has been a late season, though, and that really is the worry right now,” he said.

For Lawyer, the season has presented many challenges.

Along with Mystic pumpkins, which are perfect to launch out of a pumpkin cannon, costing more, the hot and dry July, coupled with a very wet August and September, have left the corn maze soggy and muddy.

“Our corn maze No. 1 was a swamp earlier in the month. There was a lot of mud. The drought over the summer, we couldn’t get corn to grow anyway,” she said. “This definitely is a good bit of our income. The profit is definitely not going to be as much as we’re used to.”

On McPherson’s farm, the corn maze and pumpkin patch is big business — 30 percent of the farm’s gross revenue, he estimates.

He is counting on people to come back in October. But October is usually already busy, bringing another concern that his staffing levels won’t be enough to handle what will be a busy month.

“The real challenge is going to be on October weekends. We’re already busy, now we are going to have to see if we have enough employees to handle the extra crowds,” he said.

Jack Coleman, owner of Cherry Crest Adventure Farm near Strasburg, Lancaster County, has also noticed much lighter crowds than usual.

“The rain has been keeping the people away. The last two Saturdays, people have just had too many things to do from the flooding and other things,” Coleman said.

Still, there is a sense of optimism that October will make up for the slow start.

There aren’t too many places where you’ll find two farm trucks transformed into Transformers characters, as they are at Lawyer’s farm.

And bad weather is something her family has dealt with before.

“We had a bad (season) two years ago, but we continued,” she said. “We spent a lot of money this year. It’s going to be tough, but we’ll make it work.”

McPherson had to go through and repair the farm’s corn maze after Hurricane Irene blew much of the corn over.

“Is the corn the prettiest? No, absolutely not. But it is completely doable, passable and fun,” he said.

And this year’s storms weren’t as bad as in 1999, he said, when Hurricane Floyd destroyed the corn maze.

His pumpkins aren’t doing too bad either, given the fact they are on well-drained land.

“It was a great year to plant the pumpkins on a sloping field. All of the fields are sloped, they came through all right,” he said.

Coleman considers himself lucky that most of his cornfields came through OK.

“We survived it pretty well. No terrible downed corn,” he said.

“We’re optimistic about October. All we need is some sunshine.”

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