Combine a 15-acre corn field, a patch of bright orange pumpkins and a trailer-load of hay bales. Mix in a dozen or so easily excitable children of any age and a handful of white “surrender” flags, and what you've got is a recipe for a fun and profitable venture.

With most commodity prices trending below breakeven levels, many farmers are looking for new and different ways to squeeze a profit out of farmland. One way, some are finding, is to invite tourists to the farm.

If the recent rise in the popularity of corn mazes — with hay rides, petting zoos and pick-your-own pumpkin patches — is any indication, farmers are increasingly banking on tourism to supplement low commodity prices.

A recent trip to Hardin Farms in Grady, Ark., found dozens of people filing through the gate and opening their wallets for the chance to have some fun getting lost in a maze of corn and enjoying the country life.

The proprietor of Hardin Farms, Randy Hardin, said people are drawn to farms like his in their search for a wholesome and unique outdoor activity for the whole family. “This type of recreation is educational for the kids, and parents often enjoy re-visiting their own childhood memories vicariously through our farm. And, it is a great value when you consider the recreational aspect relative to other competing attractions, such as movies and malls,” he said.

Hardin, whose fifth generation Arkansas farm has re-invented itself many times over the past 100 years, said he first saw potential in the tourism side of the agriculture business just over a decade ago.

“We were losing money in conventional farming and looking for alternatives in 1989 when the idea for a pumpkin patch was conceived,” he said. “We started with my youngest child's kindergarten class and expanded from there. We now have several hundred people visit our farm attraction during the month of October each year.”

Two years ago, Hardin Farms expanded its tourism business again with the addition of a corn maze. The success of the newest venture is evident by the crowds of families and school groups that gather each morning outside the admission gate.

It can take from several minutes to more than an hour to navigate your way through Hardin's maze, depending on both your sense of direction and your walking pace. Often a visitor to the maze can visually spot the puzzle exit, but can't quite figure out how to meander through the intricate corn row paths to it.

That challenge, said Bill Hardy, associate dean for the Auburn University College of Agriculture, is what draws so many people to the corn labyrinths sprouting up across the country.

Hardy, who came up with the idea of using a corn maze to attract more people to campus, said planning for the project at Auburn began May 15, closely followed by the planting of the corn required for the maze.

To construct the maze, the corn is double-planted, first going lengthwise of the field and then crosswise. “The resulting grid pattern, in addition to giving a thick stand of corn, makes it easier to lay out the pattern in the field,” Hardy said. “After the design is laid out in the field and the walking paths are cut, several miles of netting are installed to clearly define the paths and to keep visitors from crossing from one path to another.”

While the price of admission to corn mazes varies from place to place, the cost for a family of four can range from $8 to $48. Hardin Farms charges $7 per person for admission to the farm and hay rides to the corn maze and the pumpkin patch. Pumpkins are sold by the pound and other activities, including pony rides and face painting, will cost you extra.

Hardin Farms also grows produce, including strawberries, blackberries, cantaloupes, watermelons, purple hull peas, butter beans, pinto beans, squash, hot and mild peppers, and tomatoes. Hardin is continuing to diversify his farming operation.

“We're going to continue moving into the direct marketing aspect of agriculture,” he said. “We began growing vegetables in 1985 on a small scale. We progressed to commercial vegetable production, but that proved to be less profitable that we had hoped.”

So, Hardin Farms is changing its marketing strategy. “This year we completed our on-farm fresh market, candy kitchen and restaurant, which has been a big step in leaving the wholesale market and getting into retail,” he said. “Our next big step, which we've started this month, is a dramatic move into Internet marketing and e-commerce on our Website, www.hardinfarms.com.”

By Christmas, Hardin said, he expects to begin moving large volumes of new-crop pecans and pecan candies through the farm Website, eliminating the importance of bringing regular crowds of people off the highway into the farm market. “We are tapping a global market and expect big changes in our marketing plan in the near future,” he said.


e-mail: dmuzzi@primediabusiness.com