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Maze madness

Farmers embracing fall agritourism

Students and staff from Great Commission Schools in Altoona walk through the corn maze Friday at Mitchell Farms.

Fall offers “a-maizing” opportunities for folks of all ages to get outside, explore, enjoy family time and maybe even get a little bit lost as local farms open their gates to visitors.

Corn mazes have seen a surge in popularity — but gone are simple cuts leading to the center or the exit for a “win.”

Today’s corn mazes are intricately designed and can stymie even the most diehard puzzler.

At Mitchell Farms, Altoona, the 5.5-acre corn maze was custom designed and cut, said Scott Mitchell, who along with his wife, Crystal, owns the 100-acre farm along Old Mill Run Road.

“As the crow flies, we are actually very close to Horseshoe Curve,” Mitchell said. “So, we thought a steam locomotive would be fitting.”

It takes about an hour to maneuver through the maze, finding the clues and filling out the crossword puzzle along the way.

“If you search for all of them, it will take you an hour to get through it,” Mitchell said of the clues. If guests take a wrong turn, it could be longer.

Mitchell, who admits he has gotten a bit turned around in the maze himself, said his grandchildren can get through it in about 15 minutes because “they know all the little corners.”

“I have grandkids who have chaperoned some adults through it,” he said with a laugh.

Corn mazes aren’t made in a day, although they may be cut in a few hours, he said.

The fields were planted in the spring and when the corn was about 3.5-feet high, the maze design was cut, Mitchell said.

The paths through the maze are maintained as the corn grows.

“Corn is a form of grass, so a lot of times it will regrow in the summer,” he said, which means he and others check the paths to “pull up little stubbles” to make sure it’s clear.

This is the first year the farm has done a corn maze, Mitchell said, and he’s happy with the result.

At the Jim Hite Farms & Corn Maze in Patton, a farm scene was carved into a 7-acre corn field.

Lori Hite said they used an aerial photo of the field and drew the design on top of the picture. A friend then cut the scene with a zero-turn mower when the corn was about a foot high.

It took three mornings during a really warm period in July to get the whole design cut, she said.

The maze includes a barn, chicken and windmill and guests get a question/answer sheet to fill out as they walk through. There is also a kiddie maze — a pig’s face this year — that features a shorter walk and easy to answer questions, Hite said.

This is just the second year the Hites created a corn maze, and it seems to be a big hit.

Despite the not so wonderful weather last weekend, Hite reported that more than 900 people visited the farm over the two days.

Last year was a gamble, she said, due to the pandemic. But the maze had already been cut and plans were in place for the farm to open.

Despite being in the middle of a pandemic or maybe because of the pandemic, people came out to the farm to enjoy the maze, she said.

The same is true at JB Tree Farm in Alexandria, where Evelyn Bookhammer said last year was “exceptional” as far as farm visitors went.

She said people were looking for something to do during the pandemic and being outside on a farm is safe.

This year, the tree farm’s corn maze covers more than 6 acres, she said, adding that they try to improve and expand it every year.

For the past three years, the Bookhammers have been using scripture verses for their design. This year, “Abide in me and I in you” was chosen. In addition to the words, there are drawings that fit into that theme, she said.

As far as cutting the design, Bookhammer said they do it themselves.

“We’ve been doing this for 20 years, we’ve got it down,” she said, noting they plan the design, plot the coordinates and plant the corn. Then, within a day or two, they’re out in the field with stakes and ropes outlining the design. After that, it’s a matter of keeping up with the growing corn, pulling it up to keep the paths clear.

While mazes are generally fun for all ages, corn is a dense growing crop that you can’t see through. Bookhammer said that bothers some people and “they don’t go in.”

Even if visitors opt out, there are plenty of other activities area farms offer as agritourism continues to grow.

Fun mixes with education

At Mitchell Farms, there are hay rides, barrel train rides, a petting area with sheep and goats and a pumpkin patch where guests can pick their own pumpkins.

“It is working out very well,” Mitchell said. “We’ve had quite a bit of positive feedback. People who come seem to be staying for four, five or six hours.”

“Some people have come back twice,” he said.

Hite agrees that the fall events are a big hit with area residents.

“Kids love the animals,” she said, noting the farm has calves, rabbits, goats and a mini pony for visitors to pet, as well as wagon rides and a pumpkin patch, among other activities.

Both Hite and Mitchell have a farmer’s take on the traditional sandbox — a corn box or corn pit.

The “big corn pit in the barn” draws a lot of kids, Mitchell said, adding the area is filled with shelled corn and straw bales for climbing. There is also a slide that plops riders down into the corn.

“The kids like to play in it,” Mitchell said. With a laugh, he said he tells parents they can take the corn they find in their kids’ shoes and plant it next spring.

Hite said playing in the corn is so popular, she’s seen kids in there for hours at a time.

“It’s a blast for them,” she said, noting there are toys and trucks for kids to play with in the shelled corn.

And it’s not just kids playing in the corn, she said.

“Parents get right in there with them. I’ve seen kids bury their dads,” she said.

Trips to a farm are educational, too, area farmers said.

School groups tour the farms, learn where their food comes from, how crops grow and what farm animals eat.

Guests who go out into the pumpkin patch and cut their own pumpkins off the vine can see how the plants grow, and see how heavy they can be, Mitchell said. The ride to the pumpkin patch at the Mitchell farm also takes visitors past the field where beef cattle are grazing.

At JB Tree Farm, wagon rides also take visitors out to the pumpkin patch. Along the way they can see Christmas trees, beef cattle grazing and perhaps some wildlife, too.

There’s a play area with a hay pyramid, a boat, a climbing fort and more, and there are goats to feed and pet and chickens to watch.

Guests aren’t the only ones learning something new at the farms, Mitchell said.

This is the first year the farm has been open for fall activities, and Mitchell said the experience has been “as educational for us as it is for the guests.”

In fact, Mitchell said he has a list already started for next year.

“We learned a lot for next year,” he said, and “learned some things we don’t want to do next year.”

All three farmers said they look back on the year as they plan for the next season, tweaking plans as they go.

Diversity in revenue

Both Mitchell and Hite said opening their farms to visitors in the fall is another revenue stream that helps the farms survive.

The Hite farm encompasses more than 1,000 acres and was originally a potato farm. It was transitioned over to a crop farm and now the fields are full of corn, soybeans and wheat — all ripe for harvesting.

Juggling farm work with an entertainment venue can be difficult, Hite said.

It’s exhausting at times, she said, but it’s fun. “We have a good time.”

When the corn mazes close this year, the field corn will be harvested and sold, but that’s not the end of work on a farm.

Keeping the farms operational for the next generation are important to all the families.

Lori and her husband, Jim Hite, have two sons, Alex, 21, a senior business major at Penn State Altoona, and Tanner, 17, a senior at Cambria Heights High School, who both help out on the farm.

When the harvest season comes to a close, the family will look at spring planting and then to the farm’s fall celebration and a new corn maze design. With two years under their belts, they’ll know a bit more about what to expect and what to change.

Mitchell, a third generation farmer, has four children and 11 grandchildren, and most of them live within 10 minutes of the farm purchased by his grandfather, Joseph Maier, in 1939.

With a few more weekends left in October, Mitchell said he has been busy taking notes and making a list for next year.

For instance, the family decided to grow its own popcorn this year, he said, and learned that “popcorn can’t be planted near the edge of a field.”

It seems deer really love popcorn. “They’ll clean it out,” he said.

He also found out that pumpkins are very nutritious for deer and the critters love them, too.

Next year, he will have to plant those crops in better locations to mitigate deer damage and losses.

Mitchell said he grew up with cattle, goats and sheep and opening up the farm to visitors is one way to ensure it can continue to thrive. He’s looking at adding produce and sunflowers next year and maybe some pick-your-own berry bushes in an effort to connect to people throughout the year.

“When you grow up on a farm, you get to do things others don’t,” Mitchell said. It’s that concept that keeps him looking for ways to diversify.

Experience and new growth

At JB Tree Farm in Alexandria, diversity is the name of the game as the farm has seasonal pick-your-own strawberries, raspberries, blackberries and flowers and moves into autumn with the corn maze and other fall activities before opening up for Christmas trees and wreaths.

Bookhammer said her parents started the farm when she was little and she and her husband, Curt, now own the property.

Being mainly a Christmas tree farm, the property has been open to the public for years, and despite those years of experience, the Bookhammers continue to make changes.

For instance, this will be the first year they won’t sell Christmas trees wholesale, Bookhammer said. Instead, they’ve found there is a local demand for retail sales of trees.

“We want to have a really good supply for the retail people,” she said. “We want to have bigger trees for them.”

With more than 200 acres of farmland, JB Tree Farm has room to grow to remain relevant and sustainable, she said, especially now that “we’re not planting every square inch with Christmas trees.”

As agritourism continues to flourish, area farmers are looking to keep up with the trends.

Fall offers an opportune time to test the waters from a business standpoint, but also gives farmers an opportunity to share their way of life with others.

Farms offer a good way for families to get out together, Hite, Mitchell and Bookhammer said.

They are “a good, safe place to be,” Bookhammer added.

More information on fall activities at local farms can be found on the farms’ Facebook pages and websites. Other area farms that have corn mazes and fall activities include Hoover’s Corn Maze and Pumpkin Patch in Patton and Weakland Farms in Portage. Burkett’s Haunted Woods and Corn Maze in Manns Choice, Bedford County, is an option for those with an adventurous spirit, according to its website, which reads, “You haven’t lived until we’ve scared you to death.”

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