Farm tourism is the new cash crop

SNOHOMISH — When Bob Ricci was 9, he sold a baker’s dozen of sweet corn ears for $1 on a roadside near his family’s Snohomish farm.

More than 25 years later, Ricci is still selling sweet corn.

But today his family earns more from a maze winding its way through a corn field than the ears he grows to eat.

“You can make more money from people walking on your land than from seeding it and growing a crop,” he said.

Corn mazes hit Snohomish County in 1997 and they’ve become a regular feature on area farms that focus on providing an experience, rather than only growing something to eat. At least half a dozen farms will open corn mazes this fall, often along with other agri-tourism offerings such as pumpkin patches and hayrides.

For the first time, Ricci, whose business is called Bob’s Corn, led a class this month for other farmers on designing corn mazes. The class drew 4-H students, farmers and an engineer interested in corn mazes as a fundraiser.

It brought Debbie Foster of Clearview. She would love to farm full-time, but instead, she and her husband both work jobs off the farm, and limit their herd of beef cattle to 11. It’s getting difficult to make a living from farming, she said. She took time off work to attend the class and encouraged the kids in her 4-H beef group to go, too.

“If you’re going to survive, you’re going to have to bring that extra value to your property,” she said.

Farmers need to find ways to turn their crops into “value-added” products that can be sold for more money, and they need to diversify, Ricci said. Some develop specialty niches such as organic dairies or grass-fed beef. At Bob’s Corn, the family offers hayrides and hot food concessions on October weekends. Families can pick their own pumpkins in the patch. An old barn serves as a country store where produce, apple cider and gourmet foods are sold.

Corn mazes have become big enough business that some farmers hire professional corn-maze designers. These services, which can include marketing and staffing, can cost as much as $10,000, Ricci said. There’s even a special variety of corn bred for mazes called “maze maize” that grows earless. People lobbing corn ear missiles around can be a problem. So, too, apparently, are corn cuts, the equivalent of paper cuts from picking corn.

Ricci designs his own mazes, and he does it using low-tech methods and tools: graph paper, a 200-foot tape measure and marking poles.

Over the years, he has perfected the art of corn maze creation and what he called “people herding.” He knows, for instance, that mazes that keep people in the fields too long send them blazing their own trails through the fields. His contains 2 1/2 miles of trail and takes about an hour. He has learned to put a port-a-potty at the halfway point and that people are ready for a cold drink and a candy bar when they finish.

He didn’t mind sharing his corn maze secrets. The class cost: $15.

In 1995 Ricci, then a senior at Washington State University, first read about a corn maze on a Pennsylvania farm. An aerial shot of the maze, designed in the shape of a locomotive, wowed Ricci. What really caught his attention was a mention that the maze, open only six weeks, attracted 50,000 people who paid $5 a pop.

“That’s when it hit my radar. Wow, there’s definitely something there.”

He tried to build one in 1996. It was a disaster. He cut random paths through a full-grown field of corn with a machete, dragging the stalks along the same paths. There was no mystery to this maze, and Ricci didn’t open it.

He gave up on the notion until Snohomish farmer Ben Krause created a corn maze in 1997 in the shape of Washington state on what used to be a dairy farm.

“Ben is a pioneer in ag-­tourism,” Ricci said. “He’s the first to come out with a really cool idea.”

Re-energized, Ricci spent $375 to attend a seminar in Wisconsin on corn mazes and 2001 he created his first with graph paper, a 200-foot tape measure and marking poles. He plants his maze fields twice as thick and he cuts the corn when it’s knee high — a hard concept for someone with a waste-not farmer mentality. His mazes typically take the shape of an agricultural theme such as a tractor or a barn, but this year it’s hot air balloons.

After years of cutting the maze with a combination of string trimmer, rototiller and machete, he saved up and purchased a John Deere lawn mower with a zero-turn radius.

Still, the corn mazes here are small time compared to some in the Midwest, he said. Most of the people who run those operations are strictly businessmen, not farmers. The Midwest operators solicit thousands in corporate sponsorship from big companies such as John Deere. They lease the land, pay a farmer to grow the corn and hire a professional maze designer and staff. And the corn maze becomes more amusement park than farm, with vendors and rides. Operators can spend thousands on extras such as massive sound systems that pump music through the fields.

“They can literally spend $300,000 to $500,000 sprucing up the maze,” Ricci said.

Ricci said he could do more to bring in money, such as add bouncy houses and rides, but that means sacrificing what he believes makes his place special.

“It becomes an ethical balance,” he said. “I want people to have an authentic farm experience. There’s definitely a commercial line I don’t want to cross.”

Another line he’s loathe to cross: haunting his maze. That’s a sure way to make big bucks, he said, but it also comes with big headaches. Opening the maze at night tends to attract a younger, rowdier demographic than the stroller-pushing families who come in the day. The cover of darkness makes people more likely to destroy the maze and cause trouble, he said. Plus, ghouls and goblins don’t fit with his family’s religious beliefs.

Instead, Ricci opens his maze only to groups at night, which virtually eliminates the problem. The night gatherings draw mainly church and community groups, and Ricci has them meet in the center of the maze for a bonfire.

It’s a formula that’s working for Ricci. The first year his maze drew 1,500 people who paid $5 each to tour the maze. He hopes to draw 5,000 this season, even though a major road is closed until the end of August, limiting the traffic he normally gets from the Evergreen State Fair. About 85 percent of those who attend do so in October, because people associate corn mazes with pumpkin patches and fall festivals. The best time to go is in August and September, when the fields are bone dry and the sky is blue, he said.

Ricci is uncomfortable talking about the amount of money the maze earns. He said some people think farmers are rich and it’s generally not the case. He works a full-time job at an industrial and construction supply company, on top of the evenings and weekends he devotes to the farm. The land on which the corn maze sits is leased from his parents. He charges about $6 a head, more at night. The money is a supplement to his family’s income, but not enough for him to take up farming on a full-time basis, he said.

“I’ve got four kids and No. 5 coming at Christmas,” he said. “I need the job for the medical and the health insurance.”

The change in focus doesn’t bother Ricci, who said the maze introduces customers to his sweet corn who probably never would have found it otherwise.

It’s not just about the money, he said.

“I like it when people from Seattle or Bellevue come out here. Put them in the maze and all they see is blue skies and corn. It’s escapism. I want that authentic farm experience for them.”

Reporter Debra Smith: 425-339-3197 or dsmith@heraldnet.com.

When to see it

Bob’s Corn Maze is set to open Aug. 30 at 10917 Elliott Road, Snohomish. For more information, call 360-668-2506.

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