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Farmers carve out a niche

Increasingly popular and complex, corn mazes are cropping up all over

Clayton Cayen (left) and Nick Hayman, both 9, of Marblehead, explored the Connors Farm corn maze in Danvers last weekend. The maze is a tribute to Clint Eastwood. Clayton Cayen (left) and Nick Hayman, both 9, of Marblehead, explored the Connors Farm corn maze in Danvers last weekend. The maze is a tribute to Clint Eastwood. (John Tlumacki/Globe Staff)
By Billy Baker
Globe Staff / October 28, 2010

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’Twas a time, not so long ago, when the key word in agritourism was “quaint.’’ Farms offered visitors airbrushed versions of their agrarian pasts, pick-your-own apples, and scenic hayrides without all that messy farming stuff.

The problem, some farmers say, is that quaint is no longer enough. To compete for tourist dollars, they’ve had to meld the appeal of visiting who we once were with the reality of who we now are. Many farms are becoming high-concept destinations, a trend that began locally in 1998, when the Davis family introduced the term “mega,’’ and the corn maze, to Massachusetts agritourism.

Larry Davis, the sixth generation on the family farm in Sterling, turned 8 acres of perfectly good farmland into something the previous five generations would have had a hard time understanding: agritainment. He called it the “Davis MegaMaze’’ and brought the amusement park to the farm.

In recent years, the state has gone from a handful of mazes to nearly 30, ranging from the pictorial — one looks like Clint Eastwood from the air, another Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup can — to the highly tricked out. Inside this year’s Davis MegaMaze, you’ll find basketball hoops, sling shots, zip lines, and a nine-hole miniature golf course.

Some farmers have greeted the maze craze with skepticism.

“When I started the maze 10 years ago, after I got out of college, my father thought I was crazy,’’ said Mike Marini, the latest generation of his family to work the soil at Marini Farm in Ipswich. “Now, he gets it.’’

And each year, more farmers are getting it, according to Rick LeBlanc, the program coordinator for the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources, who said the mazes are just the latest attempt by farmers to stand out in a state where 397 farms are offering some form of agritourism.

The concept of mazes dates back to Egypt in the 5th century BC, and was made famous by Homer, who in “The Iliad’’ chronicled the Greek myth of the labyrinth at Knossos — designed by Daedalus to contain the half-bull/half-man Minotaur.

The corn mazes vary in difficulty and objectives; some work in stages and involve challenges, such as the increasingly popular passport system, where visitors must find and solve several riddles to complete the maze. And technology has invaded many mazes this year. If you’re lost, punch in some numbers and your phone will show you the way. It’s called “corn texting.’’

With the rise of the corn maze has come the rise of the corn maze competition. Each year, the mazes are becoming more elaborate as farmers compete not just against one another, but against their own past mazes.

At Connors Farm in Danvers, Bob Connors had a tough time topping last year’s maze, which had characters from “The Family Guy’’ carved into it. When it was featured on MSN.com, his website got 3.5 million hits in a single day (and promptly crashed), and Seth MacFarlane, the Rhode Island-born creator of the animated show, flew in to see it. This year, his third with a maze on the 107-year-old farm, Connors said he got a bit selfish and carved his favorite actor, Clint Eastwood, into the field. Dirty Harry has yet to make an appearance, but Connors said his e-mail inbox is flooded with people asking: “Is he coming? When is he coming?’’

Corn mazes, which began on a Pennsylvania farm in 1996, have become so popular so quickly that an entire industry has formed, complete with corn maze conventions and design companies that will create and cut the mazes with GPS-guided mowers. MAiZE Inc., a Utah company that is the largest in the industry, does this for more than 225 farms nationwide, including five in Massachusetts.

The mazes, like farming itself, are at the mercy of the weather. One good storm can destroy a maze, while a few bad weekends can make it a financial loser. But the mazes, some of which cost as much as $17 to enter, have extended the agritourism season, which previously peaked on Columbus Day, through Halloween.

“This time of year, it would slow down to nothing,’’ Connors said Saturday as he stood outside his packed farm stand in Danvers. “We’d sell a few pumpkins, a few apples. Now we do 600 or 700 hay rides a day.’’

Connors, like many maze owners, has begun opening his mazes at night for Halloween-themed fright nights, where masked teenagers jump from the stalks.

“We have the DJ with the music the kids like, the Lady Gaga and whatnot,’’ Connors said. “Before, farms would never dream of being open at night. Now it’s a substantial part of our agritourism business.’’

As the mazes have become widespread, they’ve become, in some ways, passé.

“The corn maze used to be the attraction,’’ said Scott Sauchuk of Sauchuk Farm in Plympton, which is in its fourth year in the maze game. “Now it’s, ‘What else do you have?’ ’’

A fairground atmosphere has grown up around the mazes, featuring everything from apple cannons to giant jumping pillows.

Eric Schartner, who started a maze this year at Schartner Farms in Bolton, said he gets on the Internet and starts salivating at all the options. “Next year,’’ he said, “I’ve got my eye on a pumpkin blaster.’’

While there are some who view this influx of entertainment and technology as an affront to the farm experience, Marini said it’s a necessary blending of the two worlds.

“You take people used to growing up in the PlayStation generation, and now they come out here and get a little bit of that and a little bit of this,’’ he said.

At the MegaMaze Friday night, those who made it out successfully were greeted with a roaring campfire, where they could sit, enjoy that unmistakable feeling of fall in New England, and share stories.

If that didn’t interest them, the campfire had free Wi-Fi.

Billy Baker can be reached at billybaker@globe.com.

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