There is a corn maze in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania called (I'm being quite serious here) the Amazing Maize Maze. It's located in Cherry Crest Farm in the city of Paradise, PA, and it's a sight to behold, if you're ever in the area. There are also maize-mazes run by the same folks in upstate New York and Iowa, although really, when I think of corn mazes, I think Pennsylvania Dutch country. But maybe that's just because of the blow to the head I took there.

Their motto is, "Getting people lost since 1993," and they certainly do that. I was last there in the summer of 1999, and while we weren't lost (like the previous day when we were lost, in the dark, in downtown Allentown where our cell phone wouldn't work because we were in a valley), we certainly didn't get through as quickly as we could have. The design of the maze changes on a yearly basis, and the shortest route through that year's maze -- a map of Pennsylvania with the Liberty Bell in one corner and a five-pointed star in the opposite -- was a half mile. We made it through in something like 45 minutes, and (lame as this sounds) it was no easy feat.

You would think that the 75,000 enormous stalks of corn would provide some shade from the blazing summer sun. You'd be very, very wrong, though. The temperature outside of the maze was something on the order of 95 degrees F, but inside was much, much hotter. Trapped in narrow passages, corn as high as an elephant's eye on both sides, one can become somewhat claustrophobic. Sure, the maize maze operators put water stops every hundred yards or so, but it's not enough. I have never been to the desert, but it can't be much worse than this. The danger of dehydration is so real and imminent that each group must carry a flag on a long pole -- ours was a Pittsburgh Pirates pennant -- that they should wave in the event of an emergency. We didn't have to use ours, but boy were we tempted.

As you wind your way through the sweet, delicious labyrinth (butter not included), you pass checkpoints and collect portions of the maze to paste to your map. Along the way, there are also plastic pipes you can use to ask tips of the guy in the booth -- when I was there, it was actually a girl, playing Ben Franklin. We wasted each and every one of our Ben Franklins asking where the next water station was. No lie. We were wicked thirsty.

We did finally make it through, dehydrated and dreaming of oases full of baklava and fresh, cool water. The sense of accomplishment was incredible; we were adventurers, heroes, gods. We had conquered the Amazing Maize Maze, and no one could take that away from us; we were the kings of the world.

Tourism is the biggest industry in Florida, ranging from the one-man beach umbrella rental van in Daytona Beach to the thousands-of-employees corporations such as Disney's Magic Kingdom in Orlando.

The No. 2 industry in the Sunshine State (and this may surprise some folks) is agriculture. In addition to citrus groves, Florida has cattle ranches, truck gardening, fern farms and chicken farms, vegetable, pecan and strawberry producers, corn and melon growers. Unlike the tourism business, however, the bulk of all agriculture rests with a small number of giant corporate owners.

Florida has 44,000 farms using some 10.2-million acres. In 2002, farms earning more than $100,000 were limited to six, while at the other end of the scale some 26,000 made less than $10,000 during the same year. The owners of these 26,000 farms, generally a two- to five-member family unit, are forced to supplement their incomes with at least one family member working outside the farm itself.

Traditionally, farm families have added to their income by selling produce in local farmers' markets, offering "on the farm" bed-and-breakfast vacations to city dwellers, and, in recent years, "Petting Zoos" where the children of urban dwellers can be introduced to rabbits, chickens and goats. Now there is a new craze sweeping the rural areas of Florida : the corn maze.

Ocala-based pecan growers Mark and Cheryl Wagner, in the northern part of the state, have a 24-acre farm they bought several years ago when Mark decided to get out of the computer-repair business. They could not make a living from their groves, so they added a petting zoo, raised exotic Barbdos black-bellied sheep, and even began servicing Macintoshes in their home. They were barely solvent and struggling. Fortunately last year they added a feature that saved them when the pecan crop failed : a 2-mile maze they carved out of a cornfield on the farm. It brought in $8,000 in 2003 and helped to keep them from financial ruin.

Other Florida families trying to live on self-sustaining farms are using mazes in lieu of a cash crop. The Conners in Hilliard, north of Jacksonville, lost Tyson Foods as a half-a-million-chickens-a-year customer and turned to an 8-acre cornfield maze designed in the shape of an American flag with an eagle landing in the center and the words, "God Bless America" above. They have made $40,000 since October 2003, charging $6.50 for adults and $5.50 for children.

Their family farm, which they now call an "agri-tainment park", offers a corn cannon, hay rides, a tricycle maze as well as a cow train, farm animals and a country store.

Sharon Yeago, a county agriculture official in Alachua County, noted that in Florida, "Tourism is the No. 1 industry and agriculture No. 2". She pointed out that, "it's a perfect marriage, this agritourism with its corn mazes and farm tours."

Corn mazes on farms across the United States have even spawned a new career classification. Brett Herbst of Utah, a 32-year-old former farmer, has made a living as a cornfield maze designer since 1996. He has created over 450 designs, ranging from Larry King's face to the Statue of Liberty.

This year patriotic themes are very popular, as is one in Gainesville, Florida at a watermelon and peanut farm. It features a football, two football helmets, and the words "Go Florida".
St. Petersburg Times

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