With the depressed grain prices of the past few years, the thought of setting upon a corn crop with a lawn mower might have occurred to some farmers.
Such a notion did seize Ronald Nation - sort of. He planted a corn field in the shape of the United States, mowed a winding maze in the middle of it and started charging people $3 apiece to find their way through it.
Nation could have told his fellow farmers that the attraction was a new way to make ends meet, what with tough times in agriculture and all. But that's not really what the corn maze is all about. In fact, Nation says he'll make just a tad more off the 12-acre maze than if he had harvested it for corn instead. So what the heck is Nation doing?
Easy, he says. The corn maze is providing something that Nation and his wife, Susan, haven't had in a few years - fun. And it's contagious. Little kids giggle as they scamper along the dirt trail, adults emerge from the maze, breathless and laughing. Nation hasn't found a way to overcome low corn prices. But he's created laughter, lots of it. And it's been good for his soul.
Nation raises soybeans and wheat in Qulin, Mo. Up until last year, he raised a good bit of corn, too.
"I usually raise 500 to 600 acres every year. I penciled it out early. I couldn't see any advantage to spending money and getting the same or less back. So we went with soybeans. This year we don't have any corn except the maze corn."
Nation got the idea for the maze while traveling around in the Northeast. He saw some rather elaborate designs there, including one maze in the shape of a turtle. "I figured if they could do it up there, we could do it here."
A field in the shape of the nation seemed appropriate, given the double entendre with Nation, his name. He calls it, "The Nations' Nationwide Corn Maze." It's located in the middle of a sharp curve, on Hwy. 51, just north of Qulin.
Pioneer provided the Bt seed corn for the maze at no cost to Nation. After he planted the crop in a rough outline of the United States, he came back and further defined the outline with a mower.
Then he put in 65 cities to serve as landmarks along the trail. Each of the cities are geographically correct. He flagged them when the corn was about a foot tall, then he cut the maze path using the cities to guide him. Each city is identified by a sign which contains historical information about the city. Nation fashioned them out of corn variety signs he's been saving. "We just turn them around and use the backside. We don't throw anything away."
After he cut the correct path - the one that actually gets you through the maze - he came back and cut the dead ends and blind alleys. One clue to making it through is that as long as you continue to see signs representing cities, you're on the right track. There's one exception. One city is located at a deadend. (It's not too hard to guess which one.)
Nation says there's invariably some confusion when he explains to people that he has a corn maze. Most people see the word maize instead of maze in their minds and wonder if Nation has somehow lost his. "Most people do not understand until they see a picture."
Nation is going to keep his corn maze open as long as he can, hoping to get some extra business during Halloween. If everything remains standing, he might even try to harvest it when the maze season is over. As for setting the maze up with a Halloween theme, Nation says, "We're still working on that."
In the Halloween vein, there's is already one eerie thing going on in the field, according to Nation. The corn within the field "seems to mimicking the corn in the country. The corn in the east seems to be shorter. I guess it was from all the flooding they had this year," he muses.
Nation constructed a 14-foot, red, white and blue observation tower in "St. Louis," which people can climb to get an idea of where they're going. Nation saved money by building the tower with metal from a crashed center pivot and stairs borrowed from a grain bin. Maze master duties are the responsibility of Nation, his wife and another helper.
"We have provisions along the trail and bales of straw wrapped in plastic where people can sit and rest. And if they want to give up, they can wave a flag and we'll come and get them."
Nation will come to the aid of lost mazegoers on a Mule (four-wheeled vehicle, not the animal), which he also uses to help irrigate soybeans.
"We haven't lost anybody yet," says Nation. "You have to be persistent and keep at it. It takes anywhere from an hour to two hours to get through. Kids can run through it in about 45 minutes."
Adjacent to the maze, Nation has also put in small plots of rice, cotton, milo and soybeans for mazegoers to look at. Information at those stops include a history of USDA commodity prices over the last 50 years. "It's for city folks, to show people that we're not getting rich."
He's got a patch of watermelons growing in the "Gulf of Mexico," pumpkins and some ornamental corn that he sells. He's also set up a concession stand selling hot dogs, drinks and candy.
If the corn maze is profitable, Nation will try it again in 2001. If not for the money, at least for the fun of it. "This is a game and it's fun. When I went to mowing it out, that's when we started having the fun. You realize that this is going to be a blast. Everybody that's come out is usually giggling and laughing."
Farmers should also be right at home in the maze, Nation says, "because there's no logic to it; as in farming it's a guess on which way to turn."
The maze is open every Saturday and Sunday from 9 a.m. until 7 p.m., with hayrides on Saturdays at 8 p.m.