Farmers' fall corn mazes help offset dwindling profits
Mike Dunn, one of Upper Marlboro's few remaining farmers, yelled to be heard over the roar of his John Deere tractor as he talked about his latest business venture—a huge corn maze he said has drawn more than 1,000 visitors to his farm off Route 301.
"Some of these kids, they've lived on asphalt their entire life," Dunn said Oct. 6 as he whipped around the curves of his 19-acre maze. "They've never kicked the dirt around."
Dunn hopes to change that with the maze, as well as a petting zoo, country store and pumpkin patch he has built on Montpelier Farms, where he raises corn, soybeans and livestock. Dunn's project, which he calls Maize Quest, is the first major effort of a county farmer to get into agricultural tourism, according to Yates Claggett, a planner for the Prince George's County Soil Conservation District.
Dunn said making children smile is as important to him as making a profit.
"It's almost worth it not to make any money to see the kids' faces," he said.
But Dunn's project reflects some hard realities. A labor shortage and successive draughts in the 1990s forced him to give up large-scale tobacco farming and turn to corn and soybean production, he said. But corn costs more to plant and brings in less money than tobacco—about $100 per acre, compared with $3,000 per acre of tobacco.
That, combined with rising fertilizer prices, meant Dunn lost more than $30,000 on his crops last year, he said. The profit margin on the crop is so low he sacrificed nearly 20 acres of corn to build the maze.
Claggett said the number of farms in the county has dropped dramatically, from 551 in 1992 to 452 in 2002. The county lost nearly 1,000 acres of farmland in that period, from 54,000 acres to 45,000 in 2002.
Claggett said the decline is largely due to the state's tobacco buyout in 2000, when the government started paying farmers not to grow the lucrative crop. Development has also encouraged more farmers to sell their land, he said, and more children who grew up on farms are finding work in other industries.
"Agriculture as a whole is not a profitable enterprise," he said. "The kids aren't coming back to the farm."
Claggett said he hopes declining profits will encourage more farmers to get into agricultural tourism, which he hopes will get more people interested in farming.
"I would love to see a few more Mike Dunns pop up," he said.
Dunn estimated that 1,000 people came to his farm the weekend of Oct. 3. He said he was amazed by the turnout, but he invested so much money on building the maze, stocking the general store, hiring staff members and other expenses that he does not expect to make a profit until next year.
"I expect next year to have a profitable business," he said. "It might break even. It might not."
Claggett said he is confident Dunn will do well for himself—and for the people that visit his farm.
"Not only is he helping his profit margin, but he's educating the citizens out there," Claggett said. "They'll see the value of maintaining farmland, of this way of life."
E-mail Greg Holzheimer at email@example.com.
Montpelier Farms is located at 1714 Crain Highway. Tickets cost $9.50 for adults and $7.50 for children, but group rates are available. Maize Quest will be open on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays until Nov. 16.