By Lauren Wanko
Sprawled across eight acres in Middlesex County is a corn maze that keeps luring tourists back to Etsch Farms as the crisp autumn leaves begin to fall.
“We started the corn maze business because it was important to add some extra income — they call it value added income — to farming in general in New Jersey,” said corn maze owner and operator Caroline Etsch.
It’s called agritourism and corn mazes are just a small part of it. Pumpkin picking, hay rides, farm animals and games are big business in the Garden State, providing more than $60 million a year in revenue for farmers and an additional $33 million in revenue for surrounding communities.
“Farming is business, it’s big business, it’s small business, it’s family business, it encompasses revenue streams from various opportunities that farmers have to take advantage of in order to keep their operations going,” said Secretary of Agriculture Douglas Fisher.
The agritourism business is booming at Etsch Farms and continues to increase every year. That’s why the farmers decided to add the Bakery Barn. It’s hard to resist the apple cider slushies and donuts.
The fall attractions contribute to 25 percent of overall business on Etsch Farms.
“It certainly helped us make improvements, capitol improvements,” Etsch said.
Statewide, more than one-fifth of Garden State farms offer some form of agritourism.
“It helps cushion when farming prices, sometimes the farm prices are low, this can be the biggest part of their operating farm that year,” said Fisher.
On Etsch Farms, this year’s corn maze is an Oregon Trail theme. There’s no maps, but if you get lost, there’s a phone number to call — “corn central.”
“We do use a global positioning system, a GPS unit, and we work with someone. We create the design and then he will fit it to our field, to our landscape and then we plant the cornfield as if we were planting any other corn field. We plant 600 acres of corn. This is only eight,” Etsch said.
The farmers planted the corn in late June.
“We actually double the population, plant in two different directions so that the maze will be nice and thick,” Etsch said.
When the corn reaches about 12 inches, the farmers cut it.
“Corn is a grass. We cut it with a lawn mower and we cut the pattern exactly the way it’s supposed to be,” Etsch explained.
Fisher says New Jersey’s agritourism activities aren’t limited to the fall. It’s year-round experiences that ultimately create lifelong memories.
“People will talk about this for years and their families, they’ll have pictures in their scrapbooks of how they got lost in the maze or the things that they enjoyed, the taste, the smell, the feeling they had when the came onto a farm,” Fisher said.