“Knee high by the Fourth of July” is an adage that has long been used by farmers growing corn as a marker of success midway into the season. However, with advances in the genetics of corn over the past few decades by plant breeders, corn is more likely to be “high as an elephant’s eye,” as sang in “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’” in the 1943 Broadway musical “Oklahoma!” by Independence Day.
Regardless of a crop of corn’s height, the Fourth of July stands as a midpoint in the season between when corn is typically planted in mid-April and harvested beginning in late September.
However, for farmers seeking to turn their corn crop into a corn maze for visitors to enjoy during the fall season, preparations begin long before seeds ever enter the soil.
For The MAiZE, based in Spanish Fork, creating corn mazes is nearly a year-round affair.
Maze ideas begin to take shape all the way back in February and March at the company’s annual conference, aptly dubbed “The Corn Party.”
“It’s a little bit of fun, a little bit of corn, mixing the two together, like our whole business is,” said Kamille Combs, marketing director for The MAiZE and Cornbelly’s Corn Maze and Pumpkin Fest. Combs explained that most of the attendees to “The Corn Party” are farmers looking to add agritourism elements to their farms to bring in visitors and diversify their profits. During the conference, visits to agritourism and entertainment venues are common to get the creative juices flowing. “It’s really a great collective effort to have all these farms doing the same thing, working together and sharing their ideas,” she said.
During and after the conference, the corn mazes then begin to take shape, but actually transferring corn-design ideas into realistic, operational and fun mazes is a process that The MAiZE has been perfecting since creating its first corn maze in 1996.
“It really started because Brett Herbst, who at the time was just graduating from BYU, read about a corn maze in a magazine that was done in Pennsylvania and it was designed by someone out of England, where mazes have been around for centuries,” said Combs. Then Herbst and some of his college friends, Combs included, gave making their own corn maze a try in American Fork.
What they created, according to The MAiZE’s website, was the first corn maze designed and cut west of the Mississippi River.
“We had about 16,000 people come in three weeks,” said Combs. “After that three weeks, the maze was destroyed, just trampled down. We’ve had to learn a lot over the years about how to keep it going longer, but that really is what started it.”
Combs explained that from that first corn maze, growth began slowly but steadily, with farmers trying to track down Herbst by word of mouth and news stories in a pre-internet world. “I think it was about three or four years into it that Brett and I both quit our full-time jobs to do this full-time,” said Combs. “We’ve grown the staff and grown the number of farms every single year because small farmers struggle to make a living on a small farm anymore. Agritourism has become a way that they can hold on to their land and keep their family on the farm and hopefully make a living.”
Since small farmers often all own their own businesses, they can collaborate directly with The MAiZE to create a design that fits their corn field and their taste. Combs explained that farmers often come to them with ideas of their own, sometimes dead-set on a certain design, but other times they like suggestions from The MAiZE to get things started.
Regardless, that’s where Logan Bench and his design team come in.
“What happens most of the time is they say, ‘I want like 18 elements in the maze,’ ” said Bench, chief technology officer of The MAiZE. “But, what most people don’t understand is, a maze design is part art and part engineering. You can only have so many elements in it before it doesn’t look like anything other than a blob. I always tell people it’s kind of like resolution on a screen; you only have so many little dots that can create the image.”
Design themes can be most anything. Cornbelly’s at Thanksgiving Point in Lehi, which has long featured designs and themes concocted by The MAiZE, has had a host of designs over the years: a design honoring former Utah Jazz owner Larry H. Miller the year he passed away, a Brigham Young University vs University of Utah football rivalry theme, an Olympics theme in 2002, the state quarter design and even a theme relating to singer-songwriter and Utah resident David Archuleta — the latter of which attracted droves of devoted fans, according to Combs.
Once a design or theme is thought up, then a first draft is laid out on a computer.
“The huge problem with measurements is that you can’t just be like, ‘Oh, it’s roughly you know, a few hundred feet,’ we’re down to within 8 inches of the corn stalks, and it’s all mapped out on a computer program,” said Bench. “We tweak the design and go through several processes before it even comes to the stage where it’s ready to be cut.”
The computer program allows designers to create a design on a grid of black, red and yellow lines, each designating a certain number of rows of corn. Before actually cutting the design into the corn, which is done with a riding lawn mower, the cutter will look at the printed design and spray-paint a corresponding path on the ground and place different colored flags to help orient the cutter and guide them throughout the grid.
“Everybody thinks it’s like rocket science, but truthfully, it’s like a giant connect-the-dots game, just on a much grander scale with a lot more complexities,” said Bench. “You’re looking at a grid, and a bunch of dots that you need to connect, and when you’re done connecting all the dots on the grid, it should look like something. Once you cut it, it’s pretty much done. So if there’s a mistake made, you can go back and reseed the area that you accidentally cut, and hope it grows, and it will eventually, but it’ll be a couple weeks behind.”
“Our very first maze took us three weeks to cut out,” said Combs. “Fortunately, we’ve gotten better and perfected things over the years, and now we can easily cut a maze in a day if everything goes well.”
At any given time, Combs explained that The MAiZE has three or four corn-cutting crews, comprised of three to four people per crew, going around the country and abroad cutting corn maze designs typically during June, July and the start of August to prepare farmers for fall maze openings.
According to Combs, The MAiZE has 280 maze clients all over the United States, as well as Canada, Poland and the United Kingdom, and they have cut corn maze designs in every U.S. state except for Alaska. This year in Utah, The MAiZE has cut corn mazes in St. George, Logan, Syracuse, Bluebell and Lehi.
“What’s crazy about corn maze designs, is that there’s all this energy that goes into the design and engineering so the spacing is all accurate, and people can enjoy it, and then it just dies,” said Bench. “You come back here one day and someone’s come through with a combine and mowed it all over and it’s just a field again.” Typically, corn from corn mazes is field corn and used to feed cattle, or tilled back into the ground after the maze has run its course.
From conception to creation to destruction, there are challenges throughout the lifespan of a corn maze.
“It’s never a guarantee; you have huge risks with weather, Mother Nature No. 1, competition, we’ve got clients on the East Coast that are always fighting against hurricanes and droughts and flooding and all kinds of challenges,” said Combs. “It’s not an easy way of life like some might think. But most people doing this have a tremendous passion for agriculture, and for what they know they’re doing in offering good clean fun for families.”
A new obvious hurdle to overcome is the coronavirus pandemic.
“We’re all going to have to adapt,” said Combs. “For us at Cornbelly’s, we’re keeping a very close eye on all of the guidelines and everything that’s recommended to make sure we can open and keep people safe and have them feel comfortable being here. We want to make sure that we’re complying with any guidelines and that we’re doing this in a way that people feel safe and comfortable.”
Cornbelly’s Corn Maze plans to open on Sept. 25.
All in their 25th year, Thanksgiving Point, Cornbelly’s and The MAiZE look to add special benefits – including a special 25th anniversary design featuring Disney’s “Toy Story,” which is also celebrating its 25th year — to those that experience their mazes to celebrate their silver anniversary and bring together families during a time where being apart has become a norm.
New creations are made from old and damaged wool sweaters. Inspirational messages are shared. These are two purposes of Love Woolies, a local business whose owners and employees work to create joy, despite flaws.
Marcella Hill took over the business from her parents about 10 years ago. They had begun purchasing old woolen sweaters from thrift shops, washing them, cutting pieces from them and sewing the pieces together to make mittens.
“They started it just for fun for the holiday season and they sold out,” Hill said.
What started as Hill working in her garage and going to gift shows on weekends while raising a family has turned into a new warehouse in Pleasant Grove with several employees. While they still make mittens from old or damaged wool sweaters, they have expanded to also make scrunchies, baby bows, cabin socks, baby beanies and wool hats.
Now that so many items are being created, Hill orders old and damaged sweaters by the pound from businesses that collect clothing that thrift shops don’t sell.
“We get stuff that’s really, really old and from all over,” Hill said. “We make up stories of where we think a sweater came from and whose it was. People buy those wool sweaters because they’re special. We just make the stories up, but people love that.”
Messages of hope and joy are also shared, along with the created goods.
“We started incorporating messages based on experiences I’ve had in my life,” Hill said. “Your life gets flaws and you think your life will never be good again, but we can focus on the joys even with the flaws.”
Hill said that if beautiful mittens or other handmade goods can be made from old sweaters, then anyone can create joy from the flaws in their lives.
Hill learned this lesson 10 years ago when she went through a divorce.
“It was pretty awful, and I was in a dark, dark place,” she said. “Now I have a beautiful life. But, some of my most amazing moments were during those dark times. I was able to find joy and find talents that I didn’t know I had. I got to know myself. Joy is right there in front of us.”
Another way that the company is inspiring others is through its Instagram account @lovewoolies. Women who are finding joy in the middle of difficult situations are interviewed and featured on the company’s Instagram account every Monday evening.
“We feature a variety of people. Everyone has a story,” Hill said. Some guests have become widowed, lost spouses through divorce, struggled with loss of faith or mental health issues.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Hill heard from people who were looking for face masks to purchase, but they could not find them. Because of this, the business branched out from just wool products into also making cloth masks.
“We made 1,500 masks in two weeks and donated them all to frontline workers,” Hill said.
Still, customers were asking to buy them. So, the company began selling masks as a means to fund the making of masks to donate with a “buy one, give one” plan. Since then, Love Woolies has donated over 20,000 masks. At one point, 5,000 masks were being made each week.
Currently, Love Woolies is donating masks to local schools. According to Hill, if children or teachers are in need of masks for school, they can contact the company.
While many companies have struggled during the past few months during the pandemic, the opposite has been the case with Love Woolies. In March, there were five employees and now there are about 40 employees. In addition to the popularity of the handmade cloth masks, sales have increased with all products.
“Every woman who works for us has a story of hardship and is now making income,” Hill said. In fact, many are stay-at-home parents who work from home.
“It’s been an unbelievable ride,” Hill said.
For more information, check out the company’s website at http://lovewoolies.com.