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