Turning the family farm into a theme park

THERE WAS HEMPFEST, there was Endfest, there was Bumbershoot. But for some of us the end of summer could only be capped off by . . . Cornfest.

The most visible new form of what's being termed "agritainment," Cornfest is just one local manifestation of the maize craze that has spread to every state in the continental US. It involves inviting city dwellers to come out to the farm and navigate mazes cut into rows of corn. The labyrinths can be cut into outlines ranging anywhere from a simple square to an accurate rendition of the state of Washington. Some 200 corn mazes are up and running around the US this fall. Of the six between Seattle and Bellingham, we headed for the one carved into the Skagit County farm of Vic and Linda Benson.

Global positioning satellite technology is making maze-cutting easier, but some farmers are content to use a less expensive method—a simple map drawn on a piece of graph paper. Charging anywhere from $3 to $8 for admission (and extra for hayrides, cold drinks, corn dogs, and T-shirts), farmers are hoping to return their operations to profitability in an era when farm income is at an all-time low. Some of the more hopeful enlist the aid of the American Maze Company—the country's leading promoter of corn mazes—spending as much as $350,000 for a deluxe agritainment production.

AGRITAINMENT IS NOTHING NEW. Look no further than Puyallup for proof: Since 1900, people have been gathering at the fairgrounds there for log-rolling contests, livestock shows, and celebrity cow-milking contests. What is new, however, is the turning of the farm into a theme park for (sub)urban tourists seeking good old-fashioned fun. While the fairs of yesteryear included entertainment attractions, their main focus was on improving agricultural practices, with prizes for the biggest pig/eggplant/apple strudel offered to support competition in animal husbandry, crop production, and home economics. These days, the larger fairs put on concerts with big-ticket bands and boast amusement rides "patterned after rides atop the Las Vegas Stratosphere."

In an essay about his trip to the Illinois State Fair, David Foster Wallace remarks that part of the appeal of fairs is that they make the attendee feel as if the world has been fashioned solely for his or her total entertainment. This is certainly the feeling that the American Maze Company is trying to inspire in the agritourist. Founded by Don Franz, a former Disney exec and Broadway show producer, American Maze expects to bring in $1 million this year building and producing maze/entertainment extravaganzas. Franz hopes to promote agritourism by helping turn farms into "viable regional entertainment centers." His press release urges readers to "Hurry through or take your time—if you can find your way—and enjoy the atmosphere, musical score and interactive activities. While relating to nature, master the Maze on your own terms. Whether strolling through the cornfield, solving the challenging 3D interactive puzzle, or developing leadership, team building and problem solving skills, it's all there for you! . . . And then enjoy fresh baked goods and entertainment provided by local farmers."

Cornfest, it seems, has the same idea in mind. "Fun for the Whole Family!" proclaims its Web site. On the roster of events I find a bike race and a maze contest with a $1000 QFC shopping spree to be awarded the swiftest navigator.

Approaching the Bensons' Cornfest, we are greeted by plenty of examples of farmarketing, from the sign advertising farmers' markets to the minimalist APPLES painted on the barn roof facing the highway. Inside the barn are a few dozen apples, several jars of jams and preserves, instructional videos on pruning, and various apple-themed bric-a-brac for sale. Farmers have been selling vegetables directly along the I-5 corridor for years now, taking advantage of the traffic to and from the Tulip Festival and other agritourism destinations. For the Bensons, who sell most of their corn directly to QFC, the corn stand business has been particularly good in recent years. Never mind that it's the same corn you can get at the grocery store—people stop when they see roadside signs advertising farm-fresh goods.

Like other mazes in the area, the Bensons' has corporate sponsors. QFC and John Deere chipped in to cover the costs of creating the maze, the plans for which were surveyed by an engineering firm before Vic could hop in his tractor and start cutting paths. In return, a portion of the gate receipts are donated to the Leukemia Society of America, QFC's charity of choice.

ALTHOUGH I MAKE my visit after the "Tour de Corn" bike race and a few hours before a live musical performance by a band called the Buckaroos, my $5 is still well spent—it gets me in to see the corn, which is the real attraction. I start out on the maze, which is an intricate rendition of an enclosed John Deere tractor, at 3:18, and immediately see what distinguishes corn mazes from hedge mazes: If you're really determined, you can cheat by cutting through the corn, making your own pathways and trampling on stalks as you go. I take advantage of this shamelessly, although it probably does little to reduce my exploration time. I'm out of the maze by 3:46, having only really covered the tractor's cab—a fraction of the maze. I head back to the farm entrance for a trip to the port-a-potty and to check out the entertainment.

There's no sign of the Buckaroos, so it looks like a hayride is my only option. For $2 per person, Linda Benson takes off with me and two fellow agritourists, ages 5 and 7. We sit on bales of hay, taking pictures of Mrs. Benson, who is decked out in suspiciously old-fashioned farmer's wife garb: a white blouse buttoned to the top, denim vest and prairie skirt, and an upswept hairdo. Suddenly the tractor pulling our wagon sputters and dies, and we pass the time climbing up on the driver's seat and taking pictures while Mrs. Benson is off getting a can of gas.

Arriving back at the starting/finishing point, we take in the array of goodies and souvenirs: roasted corn, ice cream, cold drinks, King Corn T-shirts in canary yellow. . . . All in all, it's more cornball than cornish. With all the promotion of "fresh baked goods provided by local farmers," I expected corn dogs and corn pudding rather than ice-cream bars and pop.

I start pumping the lady working the concession stand for "maze trivia," but she can't think of any. Maybe it's just a matter of time (this is the first year of Cornfest) before a whole quasi-folk history will grow out of the corn around me. "How many ears of corn in this whole maze?" I ask. The woman defers to Vic, who's nowhere to be seen. About a half dozen fellow agritourists are milling around, yuppie-looking families with incredibly cute Labradors. A sole tent is set up for Nextel, next to the concession stand. No one is working the booth, and it looks like the Labrador families already have cell phones.

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