Summer beckons, just over two weeks away, but it is autumn that drives Steve Templeman.
He’s the marketing director and a member of the family that owns Maris Farms, the 40-acre home to a pumpkin patch, corn maze and autumn “agritainment” farm near Buckley.
“This doesn’t just open in October,” Templeman said recently. “It goes on all year.”
He means that the work goes on all year. The farm itself is open to guests only for a month in the fall.
Founded in 2000 as a place to pick a pumpkin and walk a small maze, the enterprise then housed a Holstein dairy herd.
The cows are gone now but the barns remain. The single cash box that sat on a bale of hay has been replaced by seven ticket windows and admission kiosks for the various attractions. The original three-acre maze has doubled in size and the pumpkin patch now covers eight acres on the farm proper and in a nearby field.
Where unhaunted woods once stood empty of habitation, now there are zombies and monsters come October.
There’s a giant jumping pillow fit for kids and adults; and tall tube-tunnels fit for crawling within; and a “blackout maze” where, Templeman said, “you can touch weird things.”
Add pig races, a “goat walk,” a “cow train,” zip lines, a refreshment stand, a souvenir room.
Attendance over 14 years has grown from 4,000 to upwards of 35,000, depending on the weather.
A rainy day can cut the turnout by half, Templeman said.
Forty to 50 actors are employed in the now-haunted woods, and the farm employs up to 175 people in the high season.
Annual revenue has grown to approach $1 million.
“It surprises me how popular it’s become, how many people come regardless of the weather,” Templeman said. “I’ve noted that weather will affect daytime attendance, but not at night.”
“Anything that helps bridge the urban and rural divide, regarding food and how it is produced, is good for agriculture overall,” said state Department of Agriculture spokesman Mike Louisell. “We do support agritourism.”
Although the agency does not collect statistics on pumpkin patches, corn mazes and roaming zombies, Louisell did say there are lessons to be drawn from the industry.
“With the change in attitudes about wanting to buy local, wanting to know where there food comes from, that bodes well for farmers,” he said.
Grape growers open wine-tasting rooms, apple orchards bloom with cider festivals, cattle ranches welcome paying guests to roundups while brew pubs have their bubbling vats on display and coffee roasters roast their beans within easy view.
The department has listed a set of regional “Savor Washington” itineraries for tourists at www.agr.wa.gov.
“We work with 260 farms. Every year we’ve seen the number rise. We definitely feel that the trend is upward in the number of farms,” said Kamille Combs, marketing director for The Maize, a Utah-based agritourism design firm.
“It’s a struggle for small, traditional farms to survive,” she said. “More and more they are looking for alternative sources of revenue. As the popularity of the industry has grown, more and more farmers are looking toward agritourism.
“This is preserving more and more family farms,” she said. “It brings families and children to farms. Fewer and fewer kids are being exposed to farms, and now they’re being educated.”
The popularity nationwide, she said, “taps into the interest families have of creating memorable experiences. Everybody’s looking for that.”
Looking for a day on the farm, looking for the togetherness of pumpkin picking and looking to be afraid of things that are not real. Looking for a chance to shoot pumpkins from a cannon or to shoot zombies with paintballs from inside a moving bus filled with artificial fog.
NEW THIS YEAR
“We’re planting the pumpkins differently,” Templeman said.
No more naked rows that can be savaged by rainfall and birds. This year workers at Maris are using plastic sheeting.
“Raised beds,” Templeman said. “It keeps away the wetness. In the past we’ve had to buy pumpkins ourselves to supplement our crop. And we’re rotating the crops, pumpkins and corn. We’ll have 15 to 20 acres of pumpkins.”
The 2013 corn maze will honor the Seahawks.
This year the haunted woods will go for $22 and the Monster Safari – that’s the bus, paintball guns and zombies – for $15, or $30 for the pair. Pumpkins will cost anywhere from $2 to $14. There’s the monster truck ride, the pony rides, the zip line. There will be duck races, a trout pond and “new scares.”
Maris Farms will also work with sponsors, a trio of radio stations, and proceeds from the pig races will go to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.
“It’s been a lot of work,” Templeman said. “It’s been an ongoing battle to come up with something new every year.”
The site of the corn maze in 2000 is now a parking lot, and the farm recently bought some nearby land for added space.
“In 2000,” Templeman said, “I was thinking this is just some good Christmas money. Over the years, we’ve let people know that if you just want a pumpkin, this isn’t the place. We’re trying to attract the families, the 20-somethings, the grandparents that want a memory-making experience. Starbucks turned a commodity, coffee, into an experience. Whoever thought it would come to that?”
“There is a lot more that goes into it than opening the doors and taking peoples’ money,” Templeman said.
“We’re charging people to walk through a field of corn,” said Dale Maris, stepping down from a tractor and taking a break from fertilizing a field. “That would be mundane in some parts of the country. I saw this originally as having a five-year life span, then the novelty would wear off.”
The novelty, however, grew.
“There’s not many things you can do with you family year after year, and find something new,” he said.
June is the month for booking the vendors – the food, entertainment, the animal suppliers. It’s the month for planting pumpkins and corn.
The summer will see heavy construction and repair throughout the farm. July is the month to carve the maze and to finalize sponsorships and partnerships. In August, Templeman will take all the onsite fire extinguishers to town to be certified. Employees will be hired in August and September, and they and the racing pigs will be trained in September.
In November, when all that is October is done, the cycle will begin again. Bills will be paid, sponsors and partners thanked and briefed. There will be meetings beginning in February, and a national conference of maze-makers in late winter.
April will find a crew of pickers once again picking rocks from otherwise empty fields.
No month will go without ideas, especially for Dale Morris. He’s the one who came up with the zombies and the bus. He’s the one who thinks up the chillingly scary stuff.
But what really scares him, personally, most of all?
“Lawyers,” he answered.
C.R. Roberts: 253-597-8538 email@example.com