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Maine's Maze Craze Helps Keep Family Farms Afloat
10/23/2013   Reported By: Jennifer Mitchell

A very short quiz now: What do the following places have in common - the ancient city of Knossos on the Island of Crete, London's Hampton Court Palace, and the state of Maine? If you answered Giant Life-Size Mazes, you're correct! It's corn maze season! While garden mazes are an established tradition at many stately homes and castles throughout Europe, here in the U.S., the artform has only just turned the tender age of 20. Jennifer Mitchell has more.

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Homewood Farm, Blue Hill

A corn maze to get lost in at Homewood Farm in Blue Hill.

When the corn is as high as an elephant's eye, it's pretty easy to lose your way.

Jennifer Mitchell, lost in a corn maze: "The sound just kind of diminishes and dulls, and it's hard to tell where it's coming from. And, of course, I'm notorious for having a terrible sense of"

Fortunately for me, in this corn maze in Blue HIll, there's no Minotaur at the center.

Jennifer Mitchell: "I'm kinda hoping I'm not going to have to be rescued here. That would be just terrible."

This month, thousands of farm visitors across the state, from Aroostook to York County, will wander through the twists and turns of one of these giant labyrinths carved into a solid wall of corn, growing as high as 12 feet. Some of the mazes can take more than two hours to navigate.

To understand how these puzzles are constructed, you have to take it back to summer, when the corn was small. "I'll take it back even further than that - I'll take it back to, actually, how we plant it," says Bussie York, from Sandy River Farms in New Sharon. The planting of the field, he says, starts in May, with 20,000 seeds per acre sown across the field, north to south.

"And then we plant 20,000 seeds per acre on the same spot of ground east and west, so we have a criss cross pattern, see?" York explains.

This criss-cross sowing is what makes the field thick and impenetrable. Then, it's time to come up with a design. "We send that to Utah, and then they put it on paper," York says.

"Then we 'mazify' it so to speak," says Kamille Combs, "and we add the pathways in, and dead ends and circles." Combs has worked for the Utah based Maize Company since it started in 1996. The company, says Combs, was an early pioneer in the corn maze industry.

"The idea really came from a magazine article that our founder read, about a maze designer from England who decided create a large corn maze in Pennsylvania back in 1993," Combs says. "To our knowledge, that was the first large-scale maze done here in the United States."

The maze craze has since spread across the whole country, and this month, hundreds of thousands of people will venture into a corn maze. The maze at Denver Botanical Gardens will see 100,000 visitors this fall, while Bussie York at Sandy River Farms expects about 5,000 people to wander through his maze in honor of the University of Maine at Farmington.

And then there's the maze in Blue Hill, where I found myself wandering about somewhere inside Wilbur, at Homewood Farms salute to the pig character in "Charlotte's Web." As I'm about to give up, Homewood Farm's Trudy Beardsworth comes to the rescue.

Jennifer Mitchell: "You kind of have to go all the way down to see that you can turn there."

Trudy Beardsworth: "Right. You do, and it's hard - like, I was even kind of lost until I saw that bucket, and it was like 'Oh right. there it is.'"

Trudy and her husband Jeff cut their own 10-acre maze, which they design themselves using pencil and paper, and a bunch of points on a GPS unit, which they follow like a connect-the-dots game with their tractor. It's the fourth year the Beardsworths have done a maze. Visitorship has slowly grown from nothing to a few thousand people, and a good portion of them are likely to go home with pumpkins in the trunk and squash on the back seat.

Jeff Beardsworth says the notion of inviting all of these people to traipse about over a family farm would have been unthinkable when he was kid. But today, he says, any farmer who scoffs at such agri-tourism is going to be in trouble.

"You won't make it," he says. "It's not like farming used to be. You have to get the people to your farm. What better way to get the public here by having their family come and have a good day at it?"

The Blue Hill maze is open until this coming weekend.

Photo:  jennifer Mitchell


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