Fall maze helps pay for Corunna farm

As the sun settles below the horizon, a steady stream of headlights emerge in a line and then one by one pull into the driveway of the Country Corn Maze. “That’s what we like to see,” says Brian Martindale, who owns the farm with his wife, Jami.

It’s not always been that way, though. The saying, “If you build it they will come,” is really only true in the movies. But despite some lean years, the corn maze has brought in new business to Martindale’s 52-acre farm in Corunna.

The Martindales bought the acreage in 1999, back when corn was $2 a bushel. “It was a tough way to try and pay for the farm,” he says. “I talked with my nephew who had worked at a corn maze. We started doing the math and thought, ‘Hey, this might be a great way to get people to the farm, diversify and hopefully pay for the farm.’ ”

Key Points

• Country Corn Maze was created to help pay for the farm.

• Maze is cut in a day by Idaho company using CAD program and GPS system.

• Marketing and attracting new customers are biggest challenges.

The Internet was a major source of information. The community also had input, as the Kiwanis helped with ideas. With financing from GreenStone Farm Credit services and an updated insurance policy, the Martindales hosted Shiawassee County’s only corn maze in 2001. Ironically, the first design was the Statue of Liberty, which was cut in before the 9/11 bombings.

How it’s done

Ideas for the next year’s corn maze begin almost immediately after the close of the current one. By January the theme has been picked. “We like to stick with patriotic themes,” Brian says. “We’ve had eagles, President Lincoln, ‘In God We Trust’ with a dad and girl praying. We’ve also had racecars, wild horses running, and this year we have the Farm American theme.”

The Farm American maze is a tribute to an agricultural awareness program that was launched by NASCAR’s Furniture Row Racing. The emblem is on the racecar every week, and a major sponsor of the program is AgroCulture Liquid Fertilizers, which is headquartered in St. Johns.

Martindale owns his own business, Ag Pro Farm Services, and is an independent dealer for AgroCulture Liquid Fertilizers. “It was a good fit with my affiliation with the company. I see firsthand how far people are away from knowing where their food comes from. So, we try to incorporate some educational things.”

The 25-acre maze is actually four separate mazes with 8.3 miles of paths: the No. 78 race car, a narrow front John Deere with the words Farm American, a barn and silo, and a kids’ maze of a steer’s head.

In the spring, Martindale plants as if he was planting for a complete harvest. He selects rootworm and corn borer resistant varieties, and “we bump the population a little bit and fertilize a little heavier because this is our 12th year of corn on corn,” he adds. “The way we’re set up, we can’t move the maze to another field.”

Up until last year, Martindale used to cross-plant. “I’d cut the population in half and then plant north and south and east and west. The idea was to not give the participant a straight line of sight and to discourage people from cutting through. But it hurt yields, and people cut through anyway.

“The acreage looks like a normal cornfield until about the first or second week in July. We look for it to be at least knee-high,” Martindale says. “You want the growing point above ground so it will die. If you cut too early, it will come back.”

The Country Corn Maze works with Mazeplay Inc., which is owned by Shawn Stolworthy of Idaho. With a motor home and trailer behind it, he travels the countryside with his family to cut mazes. Stolworthy uses CAD programs, as well as a tractor-mounted GPS system to design, map and cut mazes to the owner’s specifications.

He uses a compact John Deere tractor pulling a 5-foot-wide rototiller while following the lines on the computer screen. The process takes about 10 to 12 hours. The cost is between $4,500 and $5,500, depending on the design.

“I know of guys that cut their own and they take pride in that, but even though it’s not cheap, Shawn is in there and gone in a day. The maze designs are incredible, and Mazeplay provides Web and business support,” Martindale says.

Will they come?

The Martindales build the maze each year and pray enough visitors will come to turn a profit. “We lost money our first year,” he says. However, if you throw out the worst two years with bad weather, his 10-year-average attendance is about 6,500 visitors.

“In 2005, we had 9,300 people,” he says. “We had absolutely beautiful weekends, and the economy was still decent. The weather is crucial, but business is also impacted by the loss of middle-income workers, fuel prices and new competition.”

The Country Corn Maze is open Thursday through Sunday. “We’re open 26 hours on the weekends,” Martindale says.

Generally the family runs the business, which includes sons Gabe, 15, and Levi, 26. Levi also works for Ag Pro Farm Services, and another son, Zachary, 22, has recently returned to work for the company after a couple of years in Texas.

During the busy weekends in October, Martindale works with the a local Boy Scout group, which helps park cars, run concessions and other jobs in return for a donation to the group. They also hire a couple extra people to help. Business is mainly driven by word of mouth and marketing strategies to bring in newcomers.

“We’re in a rural area four miles east of Corunna and north of M-21; coming here is not a spontaneous thing,” Martindale says. “People don’t read newspapers like they used to, but we still run weekly ads with $1-off coupons. We also supply coupons to restaurants, gas stations and ag retailers, and do some radio.

It’s a struggle to find the balance between benefit and cost. We did billboards for four or five years, which is extremely expensive and risky when you have a bad weather year like we did in 2009.”

The Martindales are constantly re-evaluating their marketing budget. “It was difficult to track what was working and what was not,” he says. “So, this year we tried using Groupon.”

Groupon is an online service where people can buy highly discounted (usually half-price) coupons. “We targeted Lansing, and got 268 purchases, and Detroit, where we sold 80. We know who bought them and where they’re located, so it’s a great database.”

A drop box at the maze also entices participants to drop in their email addresses in exchange for a chance to win T-shirts and other giveaways.

Added attractions

Martindale designed the maze experience to be family-friendly. Before entering, participants are given a map that includes a punch card. On the map are several check points where the card can be punched.

Visitors can also play Farm Scene Invest-igation. “It’s a game to find out what happened to Farmer Joe,” he says. “There are six hidden clue stations, and if you solve the mystery, you get a small prize.”

Youngsters can play a game called Farm Tracks to find out who took Farmer Joe’s pie. It requires looking for animal tracks and making rubbings of them.

The Country Corn Maze has been a success in establishing itself as a destination. Martindale says, “Even though we lost money that first year, I saw how much fun people were having, and people were thanking us. We have people who come back every year now, and it’s become profitable. I’ve watched people’s kids grow up. That’s really cool.”

For more, see www.cornmazefun.net/country.html.

11123055B.tif

AMAZING: The 2012 Theme is “Farm American,” which touts America’s farmers and ranchers as the best in the world at growing and producing abundant and safe food. According to Brian Martindale, the maze pays tribute to the American Farmer and strives to send the message “Grow It Here.”

11123055E.tif

CORN CANNON: For a little action, Jamey Hoeve of St. Johns takes his turn with the corn cannon. For $1, you can shoot three ears of corn through an air-powered cannon, built by Brian Martindale. Three targets are strategically placed, allowing prizes of $1, $5 and $10. In the background is a 100-year-old barn the Martindales converted to a concession stand.

11123055A.tif

MAKING THE MOST: Twelve years ago the Martindale family, Brian and Jami with their sons, Levi and Gabe (seated), started Country Corn Maze to help pay for their small farm in Corunna. They have made it a destination for several thousand participants every year. Missing from the photo is son Zachary.

This article published in the November, 2012 edition of MICHIGAN FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2012.