Janesville agritourism farmer designs, cuts corn mazes

cornfieldWhat started monumental change at the Tom and Cheryl Skelly farm in 1989? Four rows of sweet corn.

The crop was more than enough for the family to eat, so they sold the excess for $1 per dozen.

Then came 9-year-old son Scott’s plea to carve a path within the rustling stalks, an odd idea for the time. His dad needed convincing but allowed the child’s play on one-quarter acre. The boy plotted and cleared his first set of simple walking trails in 1998, when fewer than 50 corn mazes existed nationwide.

The Skelly farm has attracted visitors with at least one corn maze every year since then. Their property near Janesville, in the family since 1845, used to be typical Wisconsin: a 50-head dairy herd on 350 acres, but the cow milking ended in 2000.

Now the family concentrates on agritourism and fresh produce, growing strawberries to pumpkins.

Corn maze designs have gotten more complex because of Scott’s adaptation and simplification of a GPS program for seed planting and fertilizer applications. What he has created helps farmers in Maryland to Utah cut their own corn mazes. He also wrote the book “Corn Mazes: Is There a Pot of Gold in Your Cornfield” in 2004, “as a resource to help other farms learn about the process of creating” their own.

Scott used to travel to other farms to cut mazes. Now his family’s Corn Mazes America (cornmazesamerica.com) company sells the GPS program, which he describes as the first of its kind for this work. “Our system has some benefits to help make the maze cutting easier and more accurate than other systems because it is designed around the workflow of a corn maze,” he explains.

Computer-generated maze designs take three to 20 hours to create, Scott says, and a farm using his GPS program usually needs three to eight hours to cut a maze. When following a grid design without a GPS, maze cutting might take up to one week. Exactly how much time is saved depends upon design complexity and maze size.

Now comes the addition of other Corn Mazes America technology that includes a maze trivia game and checkpoint hunt for smartphone users. MazeGPS smartphone software lets visitors see their precise position in the maze.

The Skelly farm is the test farm for these maze products and home to 15 acres of highly intricate mazes.

The six-acre Adventure Corn Maze is good for families and has a “Jurassic Farm” dinosaur design this year. A little story goes along with the maze; the Skellys – parents, sons and wives Laura and Jennifer – collaborate on these things during winter.

The Impossible Maze, at nine acres, has a hotline to call if you can’t find your way out. In it are emergency exits and at least four miles of trails. “There is no picture in the design, but it is carefully designed to be extremely difficult,” Scott says.

Mazes aren’t the only reason to visit. Brother Joe designed and built a roomy playground with pirate ship, castle and other structures to climb. Farm wagon tours involve a story whose ending depends upon how riders vote; narration is automated.

A cannon and slingshot hurtle apples and gourds toward targets. Kids race rubber ducks by pumping water into chutes. They race tricycles and decorate scarecrows, pick pumpkins from a field or the farm gift shop. For sale are jugs of cider, barbecued chicken sandwiches and more. A bakery sells turnovers to pies, and most everything contains apples or pumpkin.

Weather plays a role in the success of many farms, and that is the case here too. A deluge of rain affects the number of visitors, but that’s not the only thing. The Skellys also know the Green Bay Packer game schedule plays a role on when families choose to travel.

Skelly’s Farm Market, 2713 Hayner Rd., Janesville, is open 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily until the end of October. Private farm tours are arranged for groups of at least 15 people. A $9 combo ticket is good for a wagon ride and maze exploration, but many other activities are free. skellysfarmmarket.com, 608-757-1200

Corn mazes are abundant during this time of year. These two are among the biggest.

Sixty miles southeast of Skelly’s is Richardson Adventure Farm, 909 English Prairie Rd., Spring Grove, Ill. Farmer brothers devote 30 of 530 acres to a maze with 11 miles of trails. This year’s design is a tribute to the Chicago Blackhawks, winner of hockey’s Stanley Cup. richardsonadventurefarm.com, 815-675-9729

Seventy miles northwest of Skelly’s is Treinen Farm Corn Maze and Pumpkin Patch, W12420 Hwy. 60, Lodi, on 15 of 200 acres. The six miles of trails weave a design inspired by an Aesop’s fable, “The Fox and the Grapes.” treinenfarm.com, 608-622-7407

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