10/20/2012 7:00 AM
By Paul Post New York Correspondent
RUTLAND, Vt. — A popular Vermont fall attraction is simply a-maze-ing.
Nine years ago, Irene Hathaway planted a small corn maze that has now grown to 12 acres in size, the largest in the Green Mountain State.
From late July through October, it supplements Hathaway Farm’s beef cattle business by attracting thousands of fun-loving visitors who can’t wait to tackle the challenge of finding their way through miles of paths and 15-foot-high cornstalks.
Each year, the maze has a different pattern. This year’s pays tribute to the Olympics.
From an aerial view, paths through the corn spell out “USA” in huge letters, with the five Olympic rings beneath them.
One year, the theme was based on Vermont tourism. Designs showed a big tractor, barn, ski slope and a Ben & Jerry’s ice cream cone.
Last year, Irene paid tribute to the town of Rutland’s 250th birthday.
“We always try to tie it into something special,” she said.
Her husband Byron’s father, also named Byron, purchased the site on Prospect Hill Road, just north of Rutland, in 1942. So Hathaway Farm is celebrating its own 70th anniversary this year.
For many years it was a dairy farm until the family sold the herd off in 1986. At first, Irene’s husband went into excavating, but then decided to buy a few beef cows.
Now, the farm has 100 head of Angus and Hereford, thanks largely to a third generation’s growing involvement in the family-run operation. Byron and Irene’s son, B.J., got a two-year degree in animal science from Vermont Technical College, followed by a bachelor’s degree from the University of Vermont, in Burlington.
The farm provides processed meats from hamburger to filet mignon to five area restaurants, from Poultney to Chittenden. It also has a thriving farmers market business and gets considerable retail sales from farm visitors. The Hathaways are also involved with a community supported agriculture program.
Meat, sold in various sizes including a half or whole beef, is processed at a facility in Eagle Bridge, Washington County, N.Y.
B.J. hopes to expand the herd further and other aspects of the farm, too, such as maple syrup production. “We have 1,500 taps,” he said. “I’d like to see that grow.”
The big corn maze is the focal piece of the farm’s fall attractions that include live animals (sheep, pigs, donkeys, Flemish Giant rabbits) in a historic 1881 barn, outdoor games and a mini-maze for kids.
Irene planted the first maze, in 2004, with a tape measure and garden hoes. Now the process is a bit more sophisticated, involving a tractor and roto-tiller.
The cornfield is planted in early June and she maps out the design when stalks first appear, watching them grow up all summer long. By autumn, it’s a dense jungle.
In the center there’s an elevated wooden bridge that gives visitors a place to view the maze and map out a strategy for solving it. Steps lead in four different directions.
Throughout, there are a series of signs with multiple-choice clues. This year’s Olympic-themed questions included, “Who founded the modern Olympics?” and “What country has hosted the most Summer Olympics?” A correct answer sends people in the right direction.
As part of the challenge, visitors are also given punch cards to fill out. Eight punches are hidden at various locations with different shapes such as a star, snowflake and heart. People who find all eight punches can enter their card in a drawing for prizes.
All over the Northeast, many farms have similar autumn attractions, including haunted hay rides and special Halloween activities.
“It’s amazing how it’s evolved,” said Chip Ellms of Ellms Family Farm in Ballston, N.Y.
This year, he added a new feature — automated singing chickens — that give school kids educational lessons on topics ranging from wildlife and wetlands to Ellms’ main product, Christmas trees.
“It’s been a big hit,” he said. “Teachers love it, parents love it.”
On most weekdays, his farm hosts 200 to 400 elementary school-aged kids from throughout the Capital Region around Albany, N.Y.
The Hathaways get similar turnouts in Vermont, and Irene has already started planning next year’s corn maze design.
“I’m thinking about dedicating the maze to the Battle of Gettysburg. It’s going to be the 150th anniversary,” she said. “My husband’s great-grandfather and his three cousins from Goshen, Vt., fought at Gettysburg with the 14th Regiment, and they all came back.”
This pivotal Civil War battle was fought from July 1-3, 1863.
“I have a lot more ideas than we have time, money or people to get them done,” Irene said, smiling.