MALTBY — Contrary to popular belief, corn mazes are a relatively new phenomenon.
Bob Ricci, a fifth-generation farmer who co-owns Bob’s Corn and Pumpkin Farm with his wife, Sarah, remembers seeing a Pennsylvania corn maze for the first time in a 1995 edition of Successful Farming magazine. He was astounded. There was just something about 50,000 people paying $5 to walk through a cornfield that the lifelong farmer had trouble wrapping his head around.
It was an early taste of agricultural tourism, something the Ricci family has since fully bought into. Their farm is a major destination come fall — now drawing more than 100,000 visitors in October alone — and they’d like to continue to provide those experiences for years to come.
Recently, they worked with Washington Farmland Trust to protect 207 acres of farmland near Maltby along the Snohomish River.
Through a farmland preservation easement, the land will permanently be used for agriculture. It now can’t be sold for development, at a time when more and more local farmers are tempted to take advantage of a popping real estate market.
But long before their land needed preserving, Bob Ricci was out in a cornfield trying to figure out how to make it into a maze. After reading the magazine story, he set out the next year to try to make a maize maze.
“I couldn’t figure out how they did it,” he said. “I didn’t know how it was done, how did they do it?”
This was in the days before the YouTube instructional video. Bob Ricci gave up for a few years, until attending a seminar in Wisconsin where experts teach farmers how to build corn mazes. He’s been building them ever since.
The Ricci family still use the analog method — paper, a tape measure and a lawnmower — over more recent advances in corn maze technology, like GPS. It’s just about the only aspect of the farm that hasn’t changed.
Bob’s Corn and Pumpkin Farm was long a dairy farm before it became the tourist destination it is now, Bob Ricci said. His dad was a dairy guy and loved his cows. Bob Ricci didn’t love the cows, or any livestock, quite as much.
That attitude goes back to when his dad would wake up the entire house with the sound of a tractor running if Bob Ricci didn’t get up. Milking cows is for early birds.
“You have to love the cows,” Bob Ricci said. “And that was not my love.”
He is a corn guy, getting his start selling sweetcorn as a kid. Head over to the farm and you’ll find a farm cat and a dog, but no livestock.
Farmers in the area are close and try to help each other out, Sarah Ricci said. For example, Bob’s Corn does not do a haunted maze, but others do.
“Each farm has their own (thing) and it actually makes it better,” Sarah Ricci said. “We all do that for each other.”
What the Riccis do, however, is mix agricultural experiences for visitors while remaining a commercially viable farm, selling sweetcorn and pumpkins, plus hay, honey, squash and orchard fruit. Picking your own pumpkins is a huge draw, as is the corn maze. The maze experience is intricately planned by Sarah — for a fee, visitors can rent out a fire pit in the corn.
The Riccis are proud of what they have built and wanted to protect it. That’s where Washington Farmland Trust entered the picture.
The trust’s goal is to preserve agricultural land, though it has branched out to address land access issues and work with marginalized farmers.
One of the tools the land trust uses to conserve land is agricultural easements. It’s a complex process. Essentially the trust gains rights to part of the property and asks the farmer for an easement to protect it as farmland. The farmer gets about half their value of the land through the transaction.
The land trust, a nonprofit, does not buy the land outright. Funding comes through public and private grants and donations. Money for this project came from state grants the trust applied for. It totaled roughly $1.4 million for this project, according to the Washington Farmland Trust.
“It’s essentially a legal mechanism that allows you to grant someone some rights. You’re not giving them or selling them the entire property,” said Robin Fay, the farmland trust’s conservation director. “You are selling or granting them a certain set of rights.”
Bob’s Corn and Pumpkin Farm qualified for some of the grant money because it sits against the Snohomish River. The conservation easement “will protect the property as working farmland and allow for compatible habitat restoration without compromising the agricultural viability of the farm,” according to the land trust.
It can be a long process. Fay said he first met the the Ricci family about five years ago. There’s a series of visits and conversations to see if the land trust’s goals coincide with the landowner’s vision. It is also specifically for farms that sell their crops commercially — agritourism can’t be the sole focus of the property to qualify for the easement.
“If you look at the Ricci farm, they sell a lot of sweet corn. That’s how Bob started; as a little kid, he had his wagon out there selling sweet corn,” said Linda Neunzig, Snohomish County’s agriculture coordinator and a longtime farmer. “He still sells a tremendous amount of sweet corn. He also puts in a large amount of hay, and that hay goes to livestock producers.”
If the farm checks all of the boxes, the land trust asks the property owner for an easement.
Once the acreage has the easement, it does lose value as it can no longer be considered a potential site for development. Since the farmland is now protected as agricultural land, often the only people who would buy it would be other farmers.
Between the money from the land trust and the remaining value of the land, farmers do get their value, Fay said. The farmer can still sell the land at a later date.
“What it does for the farmer is it allows them to basically get some of the equity that they have tied up in the land out of the land, without having to sell it,” Fay said.
He added: “In places like Snohomish County where there’s a lot of pressure to develop, a lot of desire to develop, farms like Bob’s Corn can be divided up into 10-acre lots and they can build, potentially, a lot of houses out there. That ability to develop has really significant value.”
Farmers who go through the process with the land trust have funds that can be used however they want. Many, like the Ricci family, use it to make upgrades around the farm.
They’re updating to a commercial septic system and building a kitchen and place to serve hot food. One of their daughters is interested in culinary arts, and they’re happy to encourage that.
“We feel by protecting the farm rights and it staying a farm and having money to expand our infrastructure now sets our kids and grandkids and all of them up for success in the future,” Sarah Ricci said.
This is pretty common for farmers working with the land trust, Fay said. There are other motivations for entering the agreement, as well. Some farmers want their land to remain agricultural but are getting older and need to sell. A chunk of money from the land trust can help give them enough to retire without the land being sold to a developer.
“They’re not making any more farmland,” Bob Ricci said. “It’s important we conserve what we have.”