An A-Maze-ing Job
Meet a couple whose livelihood depends on their knack for getting us lost.
They travel across states to create corn mazes worth the trek.
It was the middle of a dark night, and Don Watts was sitting on a mower in Halifax, Massachusetts, navigating by a GPS unit, taking down rows of corn barely 2 feet tall. “It was a little creepy being out in this 10-acre field with no lights anywhere except the glow of the screen,” Don says. “You’re riding along, hoping there’s not a tree there or a ditch in front of you.” Despite how this may sound, Don is not a midnight cornfield vandal. Along with his wife, Lorraine, he is a graphic designer and a friend to farmers—at least those who invite visitors onto their property each autumn to test their internal compasses on a multi-acre corn maze. Though Don and Lorraine live in his hometown of Doylestown, Pennsylvania, their business, The Corn Maze Guy, takes them to many eastern states—including Florida, North Carolina, Vermont, Tennessee, Kentucky and as far west as Iowa. The two have made mazes for farm owners every year since 1989.
“My purpose is to create a strong design, so when farmers put the photo on their websites, people look at it and say, ‘That’s really cool,’ ” Don says. Harking back to the hedge mazes found in formal gardens of old European estates, today’s corn mazes are a more temporary and commercial phenomenon. To evoke whimsy and attract visitors, farmers devote acreage to field corn and then carve out paths that, when viewed from above, display text, images or a combination of the two. But farmers generally don’t have the spare time to design (let alone cut) a maze that will attract crowds. And that’s where Don and Lorraine come in. As a child, Don loved drawing; in his teenage years he attended a technical school and studied graphic design and commercial art. “I wasn’t able to find a job in my field when I got out,” he says. Instead, he took work as a farmhand at Shady Brook Farm in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. After a few years he went back to school and got an associate degree in computer science. Of his studies, Don says, “I didn’t know at the time that they’d all work out well in the corn maze design business.” But work out they did. When he and Lorraine married, they started a graphic design business. Then, in 1989, Don got a call from his former employers at Shady Brook. They wanted him to design a corn maze. “Back then, we came up with a very simple plan,” Don says. “We would put stakes in the field every 25 feet to create a grid. Then we would draw a design on grid paper” and transfer it to the field. They used spray paint to mark the design when the corn was a foot or so high, and then they’d cut the corn to open the maze paths. That first booking led to other opportunities, but for 15 years the mazes remained a weekend sideline involving about a dozen customers in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Nowadays the couple cut nearly 90 mazes across some two dozen states each year. And their decision to harness technology—creating a website and integrating GPS into
DON AND LORRAINE CUT NEARLY 90 MAZES ACROSS SOME TWO DOZEN STATES EACH YEAR.
the fieldwork—was key to that growth. “Things became much more efficient,” Don says, “and business took off from there.” Forget about graph paper. These days, from January through May, the two stay busy designing mazes on computers. Then they transfer the designs into modified farming software that generates paths using GPS coordinates. Finally, they hit the road and get to work with their zero-turn mower. No more grids or stakes—the software directs the mowing. They work constantly, traveling from one farm to the next armed with commissioned designs. “We are at our max now and have had to turn business away,” Don says. “Our limit is the number of days in the summer we can cut mazes.” Ideally they get at the corn when it’s still young, because it’s easier to cut and easier on the mowing equipment. And, Don explains, “as the height increases, the amount of debris left in the paths increases. We shoot for cutting between 2 and 4 feet tall. That said, we’ve done mazes where the corn is 10 feet tall. But at that point we’re just knocking over the corn and it results in a lot of cleanup work.” Farmers prepare for Don and Lorraine’s arrival by sowing field corn in multiple directions rather than the usual rows. The most popular maze themes are patriotic or farming-related.
They stay away from copyrighted images such as Disney characters or professional sports logos. “We came close to getting into a lot of trouble once,” Don says. “My customer, the farmer, got contacted by the owner of the copyright, and they determined that because I did the design, I’d also be part of the issue.” But they were able to clear things up without going to court. “No one wants to go after a small farmer,” Don says. “It looks bad.” The duo have created mazes as small as 3 acres and as large as 12, but the typical canvas is between 5 and 8 acres. For anything over 7 they encourage the farmer to have them include a “quick exit” with signs inside the maze for the directionally challenged. It takes an average of 90 minutes to two hours to cut a maze. In the summer, Don says, “we cut all day, every day of the week.” It’s easy to see how they stay busy from June through August when you factor in travel time and loading and unloading equipment. When the maze is done, Don flies a cameraequipped drone hundreds of feet into the air, taking photos the farm can use in promotional materials. “The customer is looking out at the field and has no idea what I’ve done,” Don says. “We got the drone as soon as they became affordable and reliable, so I could take a photo immediately afterward and say, ‘This is it.’ ” Don’s favorite maze, a replica of the flag-raising at Iwo Jima during World War II, was also the most difficult. The design involved close, intricate paths, and for scheduling reasons, it had to be cut at night. “We’ve done only a few mazes at night, because it’s pretty stressful,” he says. When cutting in the dark, they must first confirm there are no obstructions such as trees, boulders or wells in the way. “At night, the bright GPS screen makes it nearly impossible to see anything else,” Don says. But seeing the finished maze in broad daylight makes it all worthwhile.
ABOVE, DON WATTS stands with his zero-turn mower. He and his wife, Lorraine, equip the mower with a GPS system and use it to carve intricate paths into corn to create mazes such as the Halloween-themed design at right.
elaborate mazes begin with a simple design like the one at left. In creating any design, Lorraine and Don place emphasis on spacing. They try to keep paths at least 15 to 20 feet apart so that mazegoers can’t see through to other paths and be tempted to cut through.
DON WATTS PERFORMS some final checks, above, before setting off to cut a maze. Usually, farmers or property owners call Don with a theme, and he and Lorraine come up with a draft design and submit it for approval. They implement suggestions and make changes until the customer is happy. Because the design process is collaborative, it can take time, so Don and Lorraine start this work in February.