- Associated Press - Saturday, September 26, 2015

PARADISE, Pa. (AP) - Twenty years ago, the Coleman family tried something completely new on their Paradise Township farm.

They waited until the corn was knee-high and then hand-hoed the stalks until the winding curves of a train appeared in the field.

Thus the Amazing Maize Maze at Cherry Crest Adventure Farm was born. This year the farm celebrates its 20th anniversary of maze-making.

These days, planning for the maze starts months before the corn is planted. The maze has grown into the centerpiece of a fall tradition that’s attracted nationwide attention.

Corn mazes are a sign of autumn, but they also fit into the growing interest in connecting people with farms, especially those folks who are a generation or more removed from the land.

Lancaster is filled with farms and has several corn mazes, including those at Oregon Dairy and Country Barn’s Barnyard Kingdom. Next month will bring the biggest crowds to the mazes.

A new business

Corn mazes can be found all over the U.S., but they started here in Pennsylvania Dutch Country.

Don Frantz created the first maze, in the pattern of a dinosaur, at Lebanon Valley College in Annville in 1993. It earned the honor of the world’s largest maze.

The idea resonated with Jack Coleman, who owns the Paradise Township farm with his wife, Donna.

“We knew we had an ideal location,” Jack Coleman says. “We had the Strasburg Rail Road right there, and it’s been a great way that agriculture and business have bonded together and worked together.”

The Colemans asked Frantz and maze designer Adrian Fisher for help to make that first train maze

“It was a whole new concept. We didn’t know what to do,” Jack Coleman says. “We can plant the corn and we can cut it out, but the whole logic of the maze, it kind of plays with your mind.”

Now when it designs the maze, Cherry Crest aims for the average person to make it through in about an hour. There are also different levels to solving the maze, some of which are more challenging and will take longer.

Visitors to the maze get blank game boards. They can find pieces at mail boxes throughout the maze to make a map on the game board.

For its 20th anniversary, Cherry Crest’s management wanted the maze to be a train, an homage to the original design, and also include a “20.”

Making the maze

Planning starts in the fall when a cover crop of rye is planted. The rye retains moisture and reduces erosion. It also prevents the maze from getting too soft and muddy.

Planning for the design also starts in the fall, so crews can paint or prep the elements needed for that year’s maze, says Brian Groff, who married Sherri, one of the Colemans’ daughters, and joined the family business. By January, the maze design is finished.

Jack Coleman planted the corn on Memorial Day this year. He prefers planting a long-season silage corn because it stands well, stays green longer and has lots of leaves, so visitors can’t see through it.

The next morning, crews marked the grid on the five-and-a-half-acre field. Cherry Crest continues to make the maze the same way it’s been done for the past two decades, with a few improvements. They take the design, plot it onto a grid and mark the ground with paint, instead of the hundreds of little flags used in the past.

That grid helps them know where to place the paths and the elements inside the maze: the bridge, the mailboxes, the slide and the “telestalk tube,” a plastic tube Coleman calls an Amish telephone.

By the afternoon, three or four pairs of employees had placed more than 20 elements.

The corn comes up fast at this time of year, so timing is everything. A week after planting, crews hoe or spray the corn away with water to make the paths.

Then it’s time to wait for good weather so the corn grows tall.

“We used to go up in an airplane to make sure we didn’t make any mistakes and to get a picture,” Coleman said. “Now our son has a drone so we can go out and get our own pictures.”

Outside the maze

Cherry Crest has games, activities and more outside the maze, where visitors can learn about food production and churn their own butter. A wagon tour shows visitors the working farm.

The Colemans aim to make changes every year, like the pig races that debuted this year.

Corn mazes are another way for farmers to diversify their business, says John Berry, an agricultural marketing educator with Penn State Extension’s Lehigh County office.

Cherry Crest is known for its innovation, the attractions surrounding the maze that constantly change and the amenities that people want, including food and nice restrooms, Berry says. It’s a balancing act that’s much different from running a farm.

Twenty years ago, the Colemans, in tune with the farm’s schedule, started the maze in August and ended in the middle of September.

This year, the maze’s last day is Nov. 7.

One of the busiest weekends is near Columbus Day, when there usually is a long weekend and it really starts to feel like fall.

“We didn’t realize October is the time that people want to come out and enjoy themselves,” Coleman says. “It was a real learning curve.”





Information from: LNP, https://lancasteronline.com

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