Corn mazes are bread and butter for farmers

Off the coast, out in the Pacific, the afternoon sun had chased off autumn’s chill. Surveying the horizon on a sparkling day, I tried to get my bearings.

I’m not someone who instinctively knows compass points. Without the help of my navigator, I’d be out there still, out in the corn.

"If you keep the sun on your back, over your left shoulder, you’ll be facing north," Ben Krause counseled as he steered us up the Columbia River toward Fort Vancouver.

Krause and his wife, Carol, own The Farm, a 125-acre piece of heaven along the Snohomish River west of Snohomish. This time of year, The Farm is home to the Washington State Corn Maze.

The combination roadside attraction/geography lesson draws thousands of schoolchildren and families each fall. The Evergreen State-shaped field is carved up by a corn-shaded road system. Visitors can speed down I-5, turn off on dozens of lesser byways, or snake along the Pacific Crest Trail.

Elaborate landmarks include a Tacoma Narrows suspension bridge, the Olympic Peninsula’s snow-capped Hunger Mountain and its pair of "mountain" goats, a Space Needle, and a Peace Arch with flags flying.

If the maze doesn’t trap you, its fascinating histories might. Those who take the time can read about a plan to make Port Angeles the nation’s capital during the Civil War, or get a good explanation of how Hanford became a birthplace for the bomb.

Ben Krause, like his wife, is a former teacher. He couldn’t hide a love of learning as he handed me a map and a challenge: "OK, find the Grand Coulee Dam."

At the plywood dam, Krause said, "This is my favorite story." He told how builders had to freeze a sliding hillside of clay, and how 81 men died during the gigantic construction project.

So there I was in a cornfield getting a history lesson from a man who had given up teaching to be a dairy farmer, and then turned from dairying to what he calls "entertainment farming."

The Krauses once had 300 head of cattle, but weren’t able to make a good living through the downturn in the dairy industry. "We sold the cows in 1997," he said. "In 1984, there were 32 dairy farms between here and Monroe. Now there are about 10." This is their fourth season operating the maze.

All over Snohomish County, farmers are finding new ways to work their land by opening it to the public.

Biringer Farms, between Everett and Marysville, has its UnderCorn Seattle Maze, featuring the city’s skyline, an orca whale, Mount Rainier and a ferry boat. The farm best known for strawberries is transformed into Pumpkin Country on fall weekends, with a Boo Barn and a Creepy Crawly Trolley.

In Arlington, there’s the Locomotive Train Maze at Foster’s Crop Farm.

The Craven Farm near Snohomish caters to a young crowd with its pumpkin patch, nursery rhyme scenes, scarecrow making and story time.

The maze craze has even gone national. Stocker Farms in Snohomish has enlisted the help of The Maize, a company that started in Utah in 1996, in putting together and running its corn maze this fall.

The company, specializing in what it calls "agritainment," was started by Brett Herbst, who graduated from Brigham Young University with a degree in agribusiness. Stocker’s is one of 61 farms around the country using The Maize designs and consultants this year.

"What The Maize offers farmers is a heck of a lot of experience," said Brian Williams, who is working at Stocker’s this corn-maze season. "It provides farmers with a very nice professional design, and helps with a lot of the hurdles they’ll encounter putting on this kind of an attraction.

"It’s kind of a consulting company, but not quite a franchise like a McDonald’s," Williams said.

While Williams praised The Farm’s focus on learning — "their maze is great" — he said the aim of The Maize at Stocker’s "is to get lost."

"People will go in our maze and spend an hour and 20 minutes to find the way out. It’s like classical mazes you’d see in Europe," Williams said.

He expects to attract a teen-age crowd. Stocker’s maze is open until 10 p.m. on weekends, and from Oct. 13 to 31 will feature a haunted Field of Screams.

"I’m not a farmer," Williams said. "The people at Stocker Farms know how to grow corn. They do all that. I do everything after that, cut out and design and promote and facilitate. I’m in town for three months," he said, calling himself "kind of a carny."

"It’s interesting, a lot of people have this notion that, gee, farmers make more money doing this than milking cows or growing sweet corn. That’s not necessarily true. It’s still farming," Williams said.

At The Farm, Carol Krause scratched her head at the thought of agritainment.

"We dairied 14 years, and you can’t make a go of it making a good, wholesome product. But with the corn maze alone, we’ll have 6,000 students this year, and an equal number in the pumpkin patch.

"It’s a funny world."

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