It’s aMAiZE-ing!

Did you know that a bushel of corn contains approximately 72,800 kernels? That the largest corn plant ever reported in the United States grew to be 31 feet tall? That finding your way out of a corn maze is not exactly a walk in the park?

Yep, I said “corn maze.” Actually, it’s officially called The MAiZE, and it covers 6 acres of Taylor Mackey’s 14-acre family farm near Brevard. From the air, the letters “NC” and the words “First in Flight” and “Transylvania” are clearly carved into the maze, as well as a pattern from the Wright Brothers’ first plane.

Utah agriculturist Brett Hurbst began supervising the construction of corn mazes in 1996, through his business — called (you guessed it) The MAiZE Company. The company boasts 50 mazes across the country this year, one of which (in Lindon, Utah) made it into the Guinness Book of World Records as the largest piece of “crop art” in the world.

“The design of a maze is usually specific to the particular area, incorporating kind of trademark things about the area,” notes Mackey, a fourth-generation farmer. He became interested in creating a corn maze on his property because, he says, “I was looking for an alternative to the traditional farming I’ve been doing.”

Mackey was particularly interested in organic farming, and he attended the Carolina Organic Growers convention last winter. One thing led to another, and he became certified as an organic farmer. At one of the seminars he attended during that process, agricultural-extension agents described a recent tour through Pennsylvania and New England where, as Mackey puts it, “They explored all these alternatives to ‘normal’ agriculture, such as growing cut flowers, pick-your-own berries or other produce, and a corn maze in Lancaster, Pa.” The agents revealed that a farmer near Knoxville was doing well with a corn maze. Mackey became intrigued, eventually visiting the Knoxville maze and learning the ropes (make that the stalks).

And just how is a corn maze created, anyway? Are extraterrestrials responsible? Is the corn planted in intricate patterns (a daunting task, at best)? Actually, “We criss-cross-plant the corn; we planted it one way, then we turned and planted it the other way, which is not normal for corn,” explains Mackey. “You usually plant it just one way. We did that to get the required thickness. Then we gave this gentleman the dimensions, and he drew it on paper and had a couple of guys come out and cut the design out.”

My companions and I arrived at the entrance to The MAiZE on a soggy late morning in August — it was, in fact, Media Day at the corn maze — in a stunningly bizarre vehicle that defies description (perhaps “rolling mixed-media extravaganza complete with Hank Williams shrine and bobbing-headed-dog geegaws” comes close). Mackey and his co-workers showed nary a degree of puzzlement, though (after all, a corn maze is not exactly a bastion of conformity). Instead, they served us a much-appreciated lunch before we set out to test our maze-navigating skills.

“It takes people, on average, 30 to 40 minutes to get through the maze,” Mackey told us. Piece of cake. Mackey handed each of us a “passport,” and we marched purposefully to the maze’s entrance. The passport contains multiple-choice questions (numbered one through 10) that correspond with markers placed on trails throughout maze. Most of the questions aren’t all that easy, unless you’re a professional horticulturist or historian. One asks, “Approximately how many kernels are in one bushel of corn?” Another queries, “How long ago did people start growing corn? Instructions next to each answer direct one either to “turn right” or “turn left” at the corresponding marker. Choosing the correct answer is, of course, crucial to getting through the maze. I panicked momentarily, until Mackey pointed out that the answers are listed in tiny print on the back of the passport. “I’ll be through that sucker in 10 minutes,” I crowed triumphantly to myself. What Mackey didn’t tell us is that one can wander aimlessly for what seems like miles without ever seeing a marker.

The passport and a teacher’s guide that’s distributed to school groups that visit the maze are part of a master educational plan by The MAIzE Company and its franchisees. “We want to educate the general public as to where their food comes from, and point out all the hard work it takes to produce food,” explains Mackey. “Whether it’s organic or traditional farming, it takes a lot of hard work, a lot of risk. And there’s so much involved that the average person basically takes for granted. They might complain about rising costs or whatever, but they don’t look into all the aspects that go into farming: How many steps did it take to get that food to my table?”

Armed with our informative passports, we trudged into the maze proper and climbed the steps onto a tall wooden platform that offered a panoramic view of the entire cornfield — a verdant sea of heavy stalks dotted with a profusion of red tassels. In between, there were patches purple clover and tangled white morning glories.

Exiting the platform, we were faced with the ominous question: turn left or turn right? Mackey, who tagged along with us, wasn’t talking.

Our first run through the maze indeed did not take that much longer than the 10 minutes I had so brazenly predicted. The trouble was, we apparently had simply gone in several small circles and ended up back at the platform where we started (though we had found two or three of the markers and taken the appropriate turns — thanks, of course, to the handy answers provided on our passports). For a brief, confusing, glorious moment, I believed that was the object of the maze: Wow! We found our way back to where we started and did it fast, to boot! But no. The object is to find your way all the way through and out the other side of the maze.

On our second attempt through the maze, I deferred to my friends to take the lead. Things seemed to be going well. One marker after another sprang up in perfect numerical order. We turned right or left according to the impeccably answered multiple-choice questions. Then, almost spookily, the markers simply stopped. We veered willy-nilly through the tall corn for what seemed — in the intensifying heat — like a very long time. Finally, though, we spied an open field. We’d made it all the way through the maze! Well, not exactly. But we had made it (perhaps more than once) through several letters of the word “Transylvania” — we now believe, after perusing an aerial shot of the whole maze.

We avoided further humiliation by not asking Mackey to compare our success with that of the numerous youngsters who’ve tackled the maze. Ever the diplomat, he simply said philosophically, “It’s not about where you come out. It’s about the fun of getting there.” Who’d have thought one could find such Zen-like wisdom in a corn maze?

The scoop

The MAiZE is open daily (closed Wednesdays). Hours vary, but The MAiZE is generally open 5-9 p.m. Admission is $6 for adults and $4 for children 6-12 (kids under 6 get in free). Group rates are available, and field trips by school/church/civic groups are encouraged. Discounts are available to nonprofit groups, and The MAiZE will match that amount with a donation to the nonprofit. A variety of special activities are planned at The MAiZE throughout October. For directions, a schedule of activities and more info, call (828) 884-4415, e-mail slidetm@infoave.net or visit The MAiZE Web site at www.cornfieldmaze.com.

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