The notion that someone would be willing to pay cold hard cash to spend an hour or so stumbling around lost in a cornfield might strike many growers as just this side of ridiculous.

Don't laugh, though, until you've talked to people like Sturgeon Bay, WI, farmers Dennis and Roxanne Schopf. The Schopfs launched their corn maze in 2001 as a companion to existing dairy, cropping and country store enterprises. In each of three years of operation, more than 7,500 customers have paid upwards of $6 each to wander the Schopfs' maze.

“We wanted to come up with something people could do as a family,” says Roxanne. “It was also a way to keep people coming out to our country store in the fall when the tourist business in our area slows down a bit. It's definitely been worthwhile.”

Shawn Stolworthy, who founded a corn maze design/cutting firm called Maze Play five years ago, says the Schopfs are part of a growing group of farmers looking at corn mazes as a way to generate supplemental income.

“It's a pretty low-risk venture compared to other small businesses,” says Stolworthy. “The start-up costs are generally low. And if you're in an area where there are lots of people nearby, the income potential can be very high.”

Last year, he designed and cut mazes for more than 50 maze owners in 30 states. He estimates that just over half of his clients are full-time farmers.

The Schopfs begin laying out their maze around the first of the year. They start by picking a theme that will determine the trail layout. They work up sketches of the basic idea, then send the information off to Stolworthy's company in Firth, ID. The designer works up the final maze layout using global positioning system (GPS) technology.

For last year's 33-acre maze (with roughly 8 miles of trails), the Schopfs elected a sports theme. The inter-connected trails were laid out in the shape of a basketball hoop and net, baseball and home plate, a ski, a hockey puck, even a cow riding a Jet Ski.

To appeal to different groups, the Schopfs divided last year's maze into three parts. Customers can elect to walk just one maze or all three.

“The trick is to make the maze challenging enough for people who really want to play a game, but not so challenging that it intimidates people who aren't quite sure if they want to do it,” explains Roxanne.

The Schopfs plant the maze field at roughly the same time they plant the rest of their corn crop. To ensure a thick stand of corn in the maze, they plant the field twice — going one direction the first day, then following in the opposite direction the next day.

Total planting population is about 32,000 seeds/acre. “We had to modify our planter to accommodate the lower planting population (16,000 plants/acre/day),” explains Dennis. “We took out every other finger and that seemed to do the trick.”

When the crop is about 18 in. high, Maze Play comes to the farm and cuts the trails for the Schopfs. Trail width is roughly 50 in. “It takes about a full day to do the tilling,” says Dennis.

The maze opens to customers when the corn is about 8 ft. tall (usually the end of July or beginning of August in the Schopfs' area) and continues operating through early to mid-November.

At the height of the tourist season, 100 customers will visit the maze on weekdays. On weekends, the numbers can easily swell to about 500 customers per day.

Professional maze designer Brett Herbst, Springville, UT, says people are attracted to mazes for a variety of reasons.

“Some people just like the idea of being lost,” says Herbst. “Others make a challenge out of it. Some just want a unique experience that creates memories they can share with friends.”

Since launching his design company — The Maize — in 1996, Herbst has worked on more than 450 mazes. The mazes are located in 46 U.S. states, Italy, Canada, England and Mexico and have drawn an estimated 3 million visitors.

Idaho maze designer Stolworthy estimates startup costs for most mazes are in the $15,000-20,000 range. That includes seed and planting costs, land rental/ownership, parking-site development, maze equipment (signs, bridges, a ticket booth, etc.), power hookups, permit fees (depending on location) and fees for professional design/cutting services.

Not included in the estimate are annual costs for labor and advertising. “Those are probably the two biggest annual costs associated with maze ownership,” says Stolworthy.

The Schopfs have been able to offset some costs of operating the maze through a sponsorship from Syngenta Seeds.

At the end of the season, they're also able to harvest 90-95% of the corn planted in the maze. “You have to go a little slower with the combine (because the corn has been planted in two directions),” says Dennis.

The majority of the revenue from the venture, though, comes from the $6 admission charge. “We figured that's about what someone would pay for a ticket at the local movie theatre for an hour and a half or two hours of entertainment,” says Roxanne. “That's about the average amount of time someone spends in the maze.”

Working with customers while staying on top of other farm duties is a major challenge during the maze season.

Along with selling tickets and answering questions from customers (“Can we take some of the corn to eat?”), other duties associated with the maze include picking up litter on trails several times a day and occasionally going out into the field to search for lost maze travelers.

“It gets to be a balancing act,” says Roxanne. “You're always busy on the farm, of course. But in the tourism business, the customer has to come first. Sometimes, you just have to drop everything to cater to their needs.”

Mazes On The Web

For more information about corn mazes check out the following Internet sites:

www.cornfieldmaze.com — Site for The Maize, a Springville, UT, company specializing in maze design. Features company information plus a monthly newsletter for maze owners and information about an annual conference for maze owners.

www.mazeplay.com — Site for Idaho-based design/cutting firm Maze Play. Company information plus links to individual mazes designed by the company.

www.wicornmaze.com — Information on an annual agri-tourism/corn maze seminar hosted by Event Management Company, Janesville, WI.

www.precisionmazes.com — Information about a Missouri company that creates custom mazes using GPS technology.

www.cornmaze.net — Carries an information database on all known cornfield mazes plus corn maze history.

Ins And Outs Of Mazes

While many corn mazes in the U.S. have done well financially over the past decade or so, don't get the idea that launching a maze is an easy-money proposition.

“You can't just plant some corn, hang up a sign saying that you're open for business and expect to make a pile of money,” says Utah-based maize designer Brett Herbst. “This is a business like any other in America and you have to manage it accordingly.”

The following are some of Herbst's keys for launching a successful corn maze business:

  • Good location. A location that's fairly close to a large population base, heavily traveled roadway or other successful tourist attractions is a plus. “If you're way out in the sticks, like a lot of farms are, you'll have to work harder at marketing to get people to come,” says Herbst.

  • Suitable maze site. Locating the maze near existing facilities — restrooms, parking area, electrical power sources, etc. — will help shave initial investment costs and provide some flexibility in shaping the business operation later on. You'll also want to make sure the maze is located away from potential safety hazards.

  • Sized right. Herbst has designed mazes ranging in size from 4 to 25 acres. He pegs 7-8 acres as an optimum size. “If it's too big, the fun can go out of it for the customer,” he says. “People feel like all they're doing is walking instead of trying to solve the maze.”

  • People skills. Farmers thinking about launching a maze business as a sideline should do an honest self-assessment before committing any resources. “You really have to ask yourself if you like dealing with the public,” says Herbst. “If the answer is no, you either shouldn't do it or you should get somebody else to manage the maze for you.”

  • Solid advertising and marketing strategy. Most would-be maze owners should consider turning over advertising/marketing chores to professionals in that field, according to Herbst. “There's just so much to know,” he says. “Most farmers don't have the knowledge that's necessary or the time to do the job right by themselves.”