BILLINGS, Mont. – Phil Hopkin grew up on a farm in Big Horn Basin, Wyo. that had been in his family since the early 1900s. Although the farm was sold to an uncle in the 1980s, that kind of work – the getting-your-hands-dirty-kind – stuck with him, even as he pursued other work. So, it’s no surprise that when a friend asked him one year to run security – to “corn cop” – at his seasonal corn maze, Phil jumped at the chance.
The next year, the same friend asked Phil and his wife, Mindi, to manage the maze. Now the Hopkins are on their third year as owners of The Maize at Grandpa's Farm, which opened Labor Day. When they started managing the place 15 years ago, they had 5 children; today they have 8, ranging in age from 26 to 10, and 2 grandchildren, with one on the way. Every one of their children has worked at the maze at one time or another, operating concessions, haunting, driving tractor and, of course, corn copping.
“It’s eye-opening to see how people act out here,” said Faith Hopkin, 15. “It’s helped me mature because I know how I don’t want to behave.”
The 7-acre maze sits on about 20 acres at the very most western edge of Billings. The once decidedly agricultural area is now merely suggestive of agriculture, with old barns interspersed among subdivisions and tractors dodging SUVs heading to soccer practice and piano lessons. Started in 1998 by Stephen and Julie Severe and their 8 children, the maze is cut into fields leased from the Kramer family, who have been farming the maze’s current location since 1930. Kramer plants the corn (and harvests what’s left when the maze closes at the end of October); the Hopkins do the rest: the maze, of course, as well as the Pumpkin Patch, Field of Screams, Hay Mountain, Cornball Hayride, Cow Train, Pig Races, Apocalyptic Paintball, Ball Zone, Pedal Karts and Kettle Corn.
The maze is one of two in Montana and nearly 300 in the United States, Canada and Europe that operate under the umbrella of The MAiZE, the world's largest corn maze company based in Spanish Fork, Utah. (The other Montana maze is Applestem Corn Maze in Vaughn.)
Corn mazes are a variety of agritourism, basically any agricultural-based activity that brings visitors to a farm or ranch like buying produce from a farm stand, picking fruit or staying at a bed and breakfast on a farm. Agritourism is a growth industry in many parts of the world, including the United States, where it’s associated with other terms such as ‘agritainment,’ ‘value added,’ ‘farm direct marketing’ and ‘sustainable agriculture.’
“The growth in the number of farms involved in agritainment reflects the need to diversify their income and hold on to land that’s been part of their family for generations,” said Kamille Combs, marketing/public relations director for The MAiZE. “In many cases this is people’s primary source of income, but some folks are doing this on the side, still wanting to hold on to agriculture they were raised in.”
For the Hopkins, the maze, open just 8 weeks a year, occupies them year-round – the leasing, hiring, designing, set up – and will supply them with 50 percent of their annual income within a couple of years, after they recoup the costs of purchasing the business. (Phil is a full-time shop foreman at Womack Machine Supply, where Mindi is a part-time bookkeeper.)
Belonging to a larger company confers a lot of benefits, beginning with help designing the maze. Some farmers use GPS, but the Hopkins use a simple grid systems to spray out the maze in the newly-emerged corn usually on Memorial Day weekend. Before that, they submit their design, if it’s an original one, to the team at MAiZE headquarters, which analyzes traffic flow and makes suggestions for how wide or how thick the corn should be.
“You’ve got to get them in and back out,” Phil said.
Partnering with MAiZE also gives the Hopkins more robust purchasing power and more sophisticated marketing. This year, they have an Albanese Gummi bear cut into the corn and a promotional tie in with the candy company.
It’s also given the Hopkins the confidence to expand over the years, adding more attractions – Cornumdrum Q & A, Farm Ball, Jumping Pillows – and visitors: Grandpa’s Farm now averages 18,000 people a season, with a fair-weather Saturday last year pulling a record 3,000 visitors.
Guests are often motivated to come to a corn maze out of a desire to connect their children and families to agriculture, Combs said.
“It used to be where everyone had a family member on the farm, now very few have that direct connection,” she said. “As parents and grandparents we have that nostalgia and want kids to see where their food comes from.”
Rebecca Hill and her daughter, Sierra, 8, visit the Billings maze annually, sometimes a couple times a year.
“We live in the city, so coming to a farm is part of the allure,” said Hill, who also likes to bring her daughter to her mother’s sheep ranch in Reed Point, Mont.
Sierra tracks the years by remembering which games and activities are new – and which she can now do. Corn mazes like Grandpa’s have in recent years become more like fall festivals – adding activities like picking pumpkins, shooting apples, cow trains, zip lines, gem stone mining, anything that creates entertainment on the farm.
“When you’re involved in agritourism, you’re not growing crops you’re growing memories,” Combs said.
But there is the crop, too, and that, like any crop or field work, is susceptible to weather.
“The greatest risk is always Mother Nature,” Combs said. “There is a lot of money that has to be invested, in labor and insurance and food and attractions, marketing, all kinds of expenses, and if you get even one rainy weekend, you might be lucky if you breakeven.”
The Hopkins estimate that with the 37 tons of hay, countless tons of animal feed for the petting farm, the 3,000 pumpkin seeds, the insurance and hiring up to 30 seasonal employees, including a sheriff’s deputy, they are out $50,000 before the gates open.
“You’re in trouble if it’s 90 degrees, if it’s 40 degrees, if it’s muddy, if it’s sunny,” Phil said. “In that respect, it’s not that much different from any other farm.”