CORINNA, Maine - This time of year, farms around the country advertise hayrides, pumpkin- and apple-picking, and mazes made from corn grown as high as an elephant's eye.
Some of these larger-than-life 3-D puzzles are simplistic, designed for young children to wander through in just a few minutes. But others - like a six-acre corn maze shaped like a lobster in rural Maine - are so intricate that guides are stationed in field towers to guide lost visitors. It's not just the difficulty of finding the exit that makes these mazes different, however. More and more of them are agricultural works of art.
"Part of making it entertaining is having a cool-looking design," said Brett Herbst, whose Utah-based company, The MAiZE, has designed more than 600 corn mazes around the world since 1996 - including the lobster labyrinth in Corinna.
This season's mazes - some professionally designed, some done by the farmers themselves - range from a map of New Jersey carved into a field in East Windsor, N.J., to a Colorado maze replicating the famous image of soldiers planting an American flag at Iwo Jima. Mazes in Layton, Utah, and Pekin, Ill., memorialize President Reagan. And this being an election year, there are mazes in Utah and Pennsylvania designed to look like the faces of John Kerry and George Bush. In Hilliard, near Jacksonville, Fla., Eddie and Betty Jean Conner have an eight acre-replica of the Super Bowl XXXIX logo, accompanied by a smaller football maze and other farm- and corn-related attractions.
The lobster motif was chosen for the Thunder Road Farm in the small Central Maine town of Corinna because "we wanted to come up with a Maine design," said Barbara Peavey, who runs the third-generation family farm with her husband. The MAiZE company plotted the design on a computer, and cornstalks were removed to form paths outlining a lobster's sectioned shell, complete with tail, claws and eyes. A small lighthouse was also carved into the field, along with the word "MAINE."
Winding your way through the 10-foot-high walls of corn is a challenge - and a fun one, as my 11-year-old son, who led our family on a 40-minute odyssey through the lobster maze last month, can attest. But while an aerial photo confirms that the field looks like a giant green lobster, you can't tell what the design looks like from the ground.
Still, farmers around the country are going for these high-concept mazes, part of a trend called "agritourism" or "agri-tainment" in which tourism is helping to shore up declining revenues for small farms. Admission to the mazes runs as high as $8 for adults, and a maze can help draw crowds to a farmer's pick-your-own pumpkin field or apple orchard at a time of year when many families are looking for harvest-themed outdoor activities.
Dean Sherman, a Manchester, Iowa, pumpkin-grower, created a three-acre maze designed as a winding vine around a jack-o'-lantern. "I saw on the Internet you could hire a company to make a maze for you for $2,000 to $5,000. We did it ourselves and have maybe $100 in it," Sherman told The Gazette of Cedar Rapids. He spent three days laying out the design and carving it when the corn was a foot tall, using a weed trimmer.
But farmers might invest as much as $25,000 to $100,000 if they have their mazes professionally designed and cut, then spend money on marketing and staffing, MAiZE spokeswoman Kamille Combs told The Gazette. The investment could turn unprofitable if bad weather keeps customers away, but farmers who build the mazes have high expectations.
Todd Uhlman, for example, hopes to attract 10,000 visitors to his Ronald Reagan maze in Pekin, Ill. "Who better than Illinois' native son?" he told the (Peoria) Journal Star.
Ted Johnson in Autaugaville, Ala., sees his 12-acre corn maze, shaped like the continental United States, as a teaching tool. He laid the puzzle out using global positioning system coordinates and a lawn mower. The borders of states serve as pathways in the maze. A sign for each state provides a picture of its flag, the capital, its nickname, the state bird and the date it entered the union.
Johnson didn't realize how good it looked until a pilot took a picture.
"I was sort of surprised when I saw the picture," Johnson told the Montgomery Advertiser. "You could really see it's the United States."
Those entering the field get a copy of a U.S. map to help them navigate. "I wanted to make something where the children, and adults, too, could learn something," Johnson was quoted by the paper as saying. "I think people will enjoy this. I don't care who you are, or how much you think you know, you get in the middle of this thing and you can get as lost as a barnyard goose."
If You Go...
CORN MAZES: Most corn mazes are open through Halloween, and some stay open well into November. Your state Department of Agriculture or state tourism office can help find one near you. Or click on the maps at www.cornfieldmaze.com or www.mazeplay.com/.