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Inside The Surprisingly High-Tech World Of Corn Mazes

The rustic labyrinths are an increasingly sophisticated fall tradition, as maze consultancies cut digital designs into cornfields with GPS-guided tractors.

About 20 years ago, Hugh McPherson added a corn maze to his family’s Pennsylvania farm, looking to attract more customers to experience the property’s pick-your-own apple and peach orchards.

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In the beginning, setting up the maze every year wasn’t easy—it typically took about two weeks of work, McPherson says. First, they’d draw the maze out on graph paper, marking out pathways, walls, and dead ends. Then, they’d plant flags across eight or nine acres of field to mark off a grid matching what was on the paper. Finally, they’d carefully cut down the right sections of stalks to form three-dimensional paths and barriers for visitors to explore.

“When we started back in 1997, it was as old-school and primitive as the ancient peoples making big pictures on the ground,” he recalls. “Basically, we were laying everything out by hand and making the giant picture look like the small picture.”

Mann Orchards [Photo: courtesy of Precision Mazes]
But now, thanks to some high-tech tools, McPherson can turn a maze design into a real-world corn grid in about a day. And while he’s still setting up mazes on his family’s own farm in New Park, Pennsylvania—this year’s maze revolved around the Arabian Nights and Aladdin’s lamp, and visiting school groups learn about agriculture in the Middle East as they explore the maze—he’s also running a maze-as-a-service business that helps set up corn labyrinths at about 81 sites across the U.S. and Canada.

Maize Quest, as the business is called, is a bit like a traditional agricultural cooperative, where farmers would pool funds to buy expensive machinery or pay for shared marketing, explains McPherson. In this case, they’re paying for resources like the expertise of maze designer Dave Phillips, who has put together mazes for books, magazines, and video games for decades. Phillips can digitally draw mazes themed around the Arabian Nights, Wild West, or medieval times, and workers equipped with tractor-pulled rototillers and high-precision GPS systems can quickly carve those paths out into the field.

Farms with mazes effectively pay for a monthly subscription and get help with everything from construction to promotion throughout the year, McPherson says.

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“We work with them January through December,” he says. “We’ve got stuff you need to be doing for your corn maze, even marketing over the winter.”

Crop mazes aren’t a new invention: Hedge mazes have existed for centuries, and Louis XIV’s palace at Versailles even included an elaborate garden labyrinth inspired by Aesop’s fables. But experts say mazes have gotten more prevalent in recent years, as farms have sought new ways to bring in visitors who might not drive out to the country just for fresh-from-the-field crops. By 2013, there were more than 400 consultant-designed corn mazes across the country, and likely hundreds of others built by individual farmers or local designers, according to an estimate from Janesville, Wisconsin-based Corn Mazes America.

Miami County [Photo: courtesy of Precision Mazes]
“You’re setting aside a little bit of land, either in corn or sometimes in sorghum or something, you’re growing a couple of acres, and you’re creating an experience,” says Mark Mitchell, a professor at Coastal Carolina University who’s studied agricultural tourism.

Plenty of farms offer other family-friendly experiences like hayrides, petting zoos, or pumpkin picking. But corn mazes are increasingly becoming a standard amenity, similar to Ferris wheels at amusement parks, says Rob Stouffer, founder of Missouri-based corn maze service Precision Mazes.

“You really kind of need to have one,” he says. “If you don’t, they look at it askew, like why don’t you.”

Precision Mazes doesn’t reveal precise client counts, but Stouffer claims business has been growing every year, with the company creating mazes for farms across more than 30 states, plus Canada, in 2017. Company designers work with farmers to brainstorm ideas—ones inspired by sports teams or other local interests are often most successful. Then, they turn those concepts into images that fit the shape of their fields, and bring the necessary equipment to cut the corn into the right shape.

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“We’re a full service operation for the clients,” Stouffer says. The company’s mazes typically cost between $2,500 and $6,000, depending on factors like size and complexity, according to the company’s website.

At farms with sophisticated planting equipment, mazes can even sometimes be built starting from the instant seeds are planted in the ground, says Scott Skelly, founder of Corn Mazes America. High-end planters can be configured to skip certain areas of a field based on GPS coordinates, letting corn be planted only along a maze’s walls.

Corn Mazes America founder Scott Skelly cutting a maze with GPS guidance. [Photo: courtesy of Corn Mazes America]
And corn maze visitors can take advantage of technology, too. Tie-in apps let them use their smartphone GPS systems to follow their progress through a maze, though Skelly says visitors have different ideas about how to explore the mazes.

“Some people don’t want to use a map at all,” he says. “Some people won’t go into a maze at all, because they’re afraid they’ll be lost forever.”

About the author

Steven Melendez is an independent journalist living in New Orleans.

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