An A-Maze-ing Job

Meet a cou­ple whose liveli­hood de­pends on their knack for get­ting us lost.

Farm & Ranch Living - - CONTENTS - BY ERIK SHER­MAN

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


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.

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