Cutline: More than 10 acres in size and incorporating over 4.5 miles of bewildering twists and turns, Jacob’s Corn Maze in Traverse City, Mich. is one of a new generation of computer-generated labyrinths spreading over America’s rural landscape. Corn mazes like Jacob’s are part of the growing agritourism movement, which plays on the nation’s fascination with its farming heritage.
By MIKE NORTON
TRAVERSE CITY, MI– Mike Witkop is a banker, not a farmer. But he’s determined to preserve his family’s century-old farm on the high plateau west of Traverse City – and he knows enough economics to realize that he can’t do it just by farming.
His solution? A corn maze.
Ten acres of corn on the Witkop farm – an area as large as 10 football fields -- have been carved into a massive labyrinth with three distinct trail systems. Once inside, visitors are free to lose themselves on 4.5 miles of winding, twisting paths whose green cornstalk walls are 6 to 10 feet high. Witkop has named the place Jacob’s Corn Maze in honor of his great grandfather, a Dutch sea captain who settled here in 1892, and he thinks it has the makings of a major tourist attraction.
“There are corn mazes in lots of places, but most of them are located in very rural areas that lack a steady stream of visitors,” he says. “Ours is just outside Traverse City, which is one of the most popular tourist destinations in this part of the country. We’re trying to raise the bar on this kind of attraction and do it as well as it can be done anywhere.”
Although farm kids have always enjoyed getting themselves lost in cornfields, the advent of the high-tech corn maze is a relatively recent phenomenon -- the first was created in Pennsylvania in 1993 – but they’ve been quickly spreading across the American heartland. Farmers typically pay a professional maze-maker to create a customized labyrinth that changes from year to year, often incorporating a design that can be seen only from the air. (The Witkops’ 2008 maze, for instance, shows a cow standing in front of a barn.) Some mazes include puzzles, treasure maps or other enhancements – and many are open at night, when the rustling cornstalks can be an unnerving place to wander.
The Witkops are hardly alone. Their immediate neighbors include a cut-flower farm devoted entirely to irises, a nursery, a roadside farm market with a petting zoo and its own corn maze, and the headquarters of Moomer’s Homemade Ice Cream, featured this summer on Good Morning America as the best ice cream stand in the country. All represent variations on the same thing: a growing alliance between farming and tourism that is making it easier for small farmers to stay on the land.
It’s called agritourism, and it’s an important strand of the tourist economy in resort areas like Traverse City whose major attractions involve scenic beauty, outdoor recreation and traditional rural folkways. For as long as tourists have been coming to this corner of Michigan, local farmers have augmented their income by selling their produce – particularly the cherries, apples and berries for which the region is famed – at farm markets and roadside stands.
Over the past decade, a rapidly-growing platoon of wineries have added wine tours and tastings to the mix. Just a few miles to the north of the Witkop farm, for instance, Black Star Farms actively markets itself as an “agricultural destination” that combines a winery, distillery, cheesemaker, bed and breakfast and petting zoo.
In addition to the usual problems of low market prices and overseas competition, farmers in high-traffic tourist areas like Traverse City face an additional burden – they’re often sitting on acreage that’s worth more for its development potential than it will ever produce as farmland. In a sense, then, it would be appropriate if tourism could help some of them get past those difficulties.
The Witkops not only had strong sentimental reasons for holding on to the family farm; they saw an opportunity to enhance their own farm experience by turning it into a work of service to the wider world.
“My wife and I realized that the most joy we ever have on the farm is when we’re having people out to share that experience with them,” said Mike. “In the end, we viewed this as a way to reach out to people who’ve never had a real farm experience.”
Their business partners, Steve and Lisa Fouch, are from a fruit farming family on the nearby Old Mission Peninsula and share many of the same goals. They’ve planted much of the remaining Witkop acreage with apples, pears, peaches, apricots, red raspberries and saskatoons -- a cold-hardy relative of the blueberry -- and plan to open a large U-pick operation in 2009 that would extend the farm’s profit-making season by another two months. (For now, the farm does have one small but unique retail operation, a half-acre pumpkin patch featuring strangely-shaped "Super Freak" pumpkins with names like Knuckle Heads and Goose Bumps.)
WHEN TO COME
Jacob’s Corn Maze is open on weekends from Aug. 23 to Nov. 1 Hours 5-9 p.m. Friday, 1-9 p.m. Saturday and 1-7 p.m. Sunday. The farm is at 7100 E. Traverse Highway (M-72 west) 3.5 miles west of Traverse City. Admission is $8 for adults, $5 for children 3-11 and free to children under 3. For more information, log on to http://www.jacobs-corn-maze.com/
WHAT ELSE TO DO
Late summer and fall are an excellent time to sample most of the Traverse City area’s other agritourism attractions, since many fruit crops only become available with the approach of autumn. (Early September is the time for nectarines, apples, plums and grapes, and the apple and pumpkin harvests usually last until November.)
Just across the road from Jacob’s Corn Maze, for instance, is Gallagher's Farm Market, which features a wide variety of fresh fruits and vegetables in season, baked goods, homemade jams and jellies, local wines, cherry products – plus a petting farm and their own (smaller) corn maze. Several miles to the north, between Suttons Bay and Lake Leelanau, is the Covered Wagon Farm Market & Bakery, with lots of local fruit and garden produce, home-baked goods made on site, and handcrafted baskets.
Just across Grand Traverse Bay on the picturesque Old Mission Peninsula are two more farm markets: Buchan's Blueberry Hill (which despite its name also has a good selection of apples and other produce) and Edmondson Orchards, with late-season items like corn and local honey, as well as dried cherries and cherry juices. Farther to the north, on the highway to Charlevoix, is Friske's Farm Market, an all-weather fruit stand that’s open all year with its bakery, café, gift shop, playground and barnyard zoo.
At Northport, near the tip of the scenic Leelanau Peninsula, is Kilcherman’s Christmas Cove Farm, where farmers John and Phyllis Kilcherman grow over 240 varieties of “antique apple” varieties that were once commonplace but have fallen into disuse. Every fall, hundreds of apple fanciers make their way to their isolated farm to taste, smell and buy such hard-to-get treasures as the Strawberry Chenango, the Opalescent, the Spitzenburg and the Ozark Gold.
For those who prefer to shop and compare, Traverse City has three separate farm markets. The biggest is the Sarah Hardy Farm Market, located on the north bank of the Boardman River between Union and Cass streets and open Saturday mornings May through October, and Wednesday mornings from mid-June through September. There’s also the City Market, a year-round open-air market at the old city railway station on Boardman Lake, also open Saturday and Wednesday mornings, and the Village Farmers Market on the piazza at the Grand Traverse Commons, every Friday from 3-7 p.m.