It's fall, and that means it's corn maze time. There are almost a dozen corn mazes in Northern Utah, offering a corn-ucopia of fun.
"We enjoy seeing everyone laugh, and have smiles on their faces," said Ticey Hadley, with Punkinaze in West Haven. "That's what's kept us going all these years."
This is the last year of Punkinze.
"Thirteen years is good for us, and we want to end with great memories," Hadley said.
Laughs and smiles aren't the only things that keep farmers making corn mazes; for some, corn mazes have become a business
A lot of time, money, effort and even artistry goes into making an amazing maze -- one where people really do get lost, and love it.
Making the cut
Creating a maze can be a high-tech or old-fashioned process.
To start the process, fields are planted in a different pattern than the traditional rows.
"We cross plant it ... to try to thicken it up," Hadley said. "We plant vertically, and then horizontally."
Art for the 28-acre corn maze at Black Island Farms in Syracuse is converted to a grid using a computer program. Trails through the maze have created images inspired by the "Twilight" book and movie series, the Weber State University logo, and a ghost.
"This year, it says Black Island Farms, and there's a tractor and our Nightmare Acres logo," said Dorathy Law, a member of the family that owns it.
Some folks who use computers to design mazes use GPS and a guided machine to cut the pattern into the field. Local farmers say that's too expensive.
"We walk the field and count the rows, with something like a Blue Stakes-type upside-down spray paint can, and spray the design and path with paint," said Law.
They don't wait until cornstalks are full-grown to cut the path.
"We start when it's abut an inch, and finish when its about 3 inches," said Law. "It's usually around a weeklong process."
Wearing a backpack with spray booms extended to the sides, a worker applies a herbicide that kills plants to create 4-foot-wide paths.
Most Utah maze patterns are hand-drawing on grid paper. Some keep their mazes simple, with geometric shapes, but others go all-out.
"We've done spider webs, and have done a haunted house, a ship, and we've done a witch stirring her brew," said Nancy Jensen of Green Canyon Farms in Logan. She credits her husband, Ron, for the art.
The old-school way of transferring the pattern to the field involves the use of a measuring tape, stakes and string.
"We grid it out in 50-foot squares," said Punkinaze's Hadley. "Based on the squares drawn on paper, we go through one square and hoe it out, and then move on to the next."
The owner of Corn Creepers in Brigham City, Ken Smoot, divides his field into 10-foot squares and digs the pattern with a rototiller.
The Camp 'N Corn Maze, at Cold Springs Trout Farm in North Ogden, is one of the few local mazes cut into a fully grown cornfield.
"In this area we have deer and raccoons that like our corn," said owner Neal Barker, "so I have a general idea of what the maze is going to look like but I have to wait until the corn grows and see what the deer and raccoons do to it, then I start on the trail. I cut it all by hand."
An elephant's eye
In the musical "Oklahoma," a cowboy named Curly praises a field by singing "The corn is as high as an elephant's eye, and it looks like it's climbing clear up to the sky."
Local maze owners could sing the same song.
According to a San Diego Zoo website, an average adult elephant measures between 8 and 10 1/2 feet tall, at shoulder height. And an elephant's eyes are just a little below shoulder level. So how do local mazes compare?
Smoot, of Corn Creepers in Brigham City, says he plants a variety of corn that grows from 7 to 9 feet tall. The stalks in Carter's Crazy Corn Maze, in Garland, are about 10 feet tall, and at West Haven's Punkinaze they grow from 10 to 12 feet tall. In Syracuse, at Black Island Farms, the corn in the maze averages 12 feet in height, according to co-owner Law.
The cornstalks in mazes are so thick and tall, it's easy to get lost -- especially at night.
"Everybody that's gone through has gotten lost for a certain amount of time -- even some employees," said Barker of Camp 'N Corn Maze in North Ogden. "I have had several people go out the entrance, because they couldn't find the exit."
At just over an acre, Barker's maze is small enough that no one is lost for long. It's another story at bigger mazes.
"There was a lady who was from North Ogden, who had to go to the bathroom really bad but could not find her way out," said Hadley of Punkinaze.
The woman called her children, who asked the Punkinaze crew to get her out -- fast.
The average time spent in the maze at Black Island Farms, in Syracuse, is 45 minutes, but some are in the corn as long as two hours -- in spite of that fact that there is a map available.
"We have staff out there, called 'Corn Cops,' whose job is to keep people safe, keep them from throwing corn and whatnot, and to help people out if they get lost," Law said.
Green Canyon Farms in Logan also stations helpers in the field -- and sometimes they have their job cut out for them. Co-owner Jensen says a church group once visited her maze and couldn't find one of their young men for two hours after the rest of the group had finished.
"We had our security guys looking around, and they couldn't find him," she said.
Someone tracked down the missing youth's cellphone number.
"He finally answered it, and it turned out he had narcolepsy," she said. "He was way back inside the rows, and he had lain down and was sleeping."
Generally, it's not that hard to get through the maze at Green Canyon Farms.
"The first part of our maze takes about an hour, and after that there's a Pepsi box in the middle, where we sell concessions," said Jensen. "We have trivia questions in the maze. ... If they come to that, and get the right answer, it could help them through the maze. If they get it wrong, they could go down a dead end."
People try some crazy things to avoid getting lost.
"We've had people leave little pieces of Kleenex, and found that somebody had little crab apples they dropped," said Lisa Carter, owner of Carter's Crazy Corn Maze in Garland. "Sometimes they say they're going to take all lefts, or all rights, but they still get lost."
One woman was determined to use a GPS device to track her moves through Corn Creepers in Brigham City.
"She came four different times, and never got through the maze," said owner Smoot.
After Halloween, most mazes are harvested for food -- for cows.
"We've had people coming out of the maze with corn in their hands, thinking they want to go home and cook it," said Punkinaze's Hadley. "We do try to tell people it's cow corn -- not good, yummy sweet corn."
Hadley's family runs a dairy farm and feeds the corn to their own cows.
"We used to have to burn it, and chop it up and put it back in the ground," said Jensen, co-owner of Green Canyon Farms in Logan. "We've found a farmer that has quite a few cows, and needs as much feed as he can get, so he comes and harvests it now."
The maze at Carter's Crazy Corn Maze, in Garland, is a partnership. The owners' friend pays to plant and fertilize the crop, and the Carters water it. When Halloween's over, the friend harvests and sells the corn.
Not everyone turns the corn to silage.
"This year I offered it to any farmers that can use it for their cattle, but I haven't had any takers yet," Barker said of the grain in North Ogden's Camp 'N Corn Maze.
He'll probably leave his corn in the field, as he's done for the past few years.
"All kinds of animals come and clean it up," he said, listing raccoons, deer, and geese among those that feast on his maze.
Creating a corn maze is expensive, according to Jensen of Green Canyon Farms in Logan.
"It's a lot more expensive than people ever dreamed. If I remember right, it's about $600 for a bag of seed, and it's like 50 pounds," she said, adding that with a 21-acre maze it takes more than one bag.
And then there's water and fertilizer.
"The fertilizer is extremely expensive -- like putting gold on your ground," she said.
So which is more profitable -- growing corn for animal feed, or for a maze?
"The maze, if we have a good year," said Hadley of Punkinaze. "The weather's a lot of it. We've had years where, unfortunately, it rains, and it wanted to hit us almost every weekend."
The owners of Black Island Farms in Syracuse create a whole festival to go with their maze, from pumpkin patch hayrides to giant slides and live entertainment. And they're not the only farmers looking for ways to maximize attendance in the weeks running up to Halloween.
"I think a lot of farms that operate mazes are doing it to diversify, to stay alive," said Law of Black Island Farms. "We, by far, make the majority of our money in six weeks, and that's what allows us to keep farming."