If you’ve ever been through a corn maze, you’ve no doubt, at some point, felt overwhelmed. The giant stalks of corn, the dead ends, maybe a few spooky characters hiding in the shadows — it’s a daunting, but fun, fall activity.
Imagine, then, what it must be like to actually build one. The prep work, the layout and design, the crop itself — there are so many elements that contribute to a successful experience.
But after talking with several North Fork corn maze proprietors, we learned that, while there’s a lot of hard work that goes into these mazes, there’s a lot of love, fun and tradition, too.
“It’s a fun process because we’ve been doing it together for decades,” said Al Krupski of Krupski Farms in Peconic, who designs and builds the maze each year with his son, Nick. “You just kind of feel it [when designing it]. You want people to be able to get through it, but the other goal is to confuse people!”
“I’ve gotten lost before!” said Nick. “In the early years, we’d be in there for a long time, chopping down cornstalks and we put a rope in as a guide. We have a rough formula and new things we want to try every year and some years it becomes harder or more difficult.”
Jim Stakey of Stakey’s Pumpkin Farm worked with Scott Skelly, a Wisconsin-based farmer and corn maze expert, to design his farm’s mazes after a few years of designing it himself.
“The first two years I did the corn maze were a walk in the corn,” Stakey joked. “I took a rototiller, had a bunch of beers, thought I made this really cool corn maze — and it sucked. The second year, it sucked more. My wife complained so much that I looked up [Scott Skelly] and we’ve been working with him ever since.”
Skelly, who has worked with farms all over the country on corn maze designs, faced some challenges working on Stakey’s corn maze. For one thing, at about four acres, it was smaller than he was used to.
“It’s a different dynamic on Long Island than here in the Midwest,” Skelly said. “Here in the Midwest, having an eight-or-10-acre maze isn’t that big a deal.”
Rather than design a maze that looked like an image or character from above, Skelly designed an intricate custom maze for Stakey’s.
“We quickly realized that, if we wanted to do a maze, we needed to get it as complex as possible and not get hung up on trying to put a picture in, and then it was going to be more important to just have a good challenge within that space,” Skelly said.
Once a corn maze is designed, it’s time to plant the corn. Corn mazes are made up of field corn, which grows high. And the corn grows very, very quickly.
“Sweet corn is going to mature, turn brown and not be tall enough,” Al Krupski said. Field corn also stands up to wind better, added Nick Krupski.
To plow the field, though, is a relatively fast process.
“We’ve done it in one day,” Stakey said. “But what makes it harder is, as time goes on, the corn gets thicker so it’s harder to hoe out. So we try to get in there early and then we go through and rake.”
Ed Harbes IV, CEO of Harbes Farms, said the corn maze prep begins early in the summer at his farm. “We generally start preparation in late June, early July,” he said.
“The maze is typically planted by this time and the pathways are cut by late July. We then go through and clean up any unwanted plant growth and install our various stations related to the maze game.”
Once the corn is planted, the (sometimes spooky) fun begins.
“When we started, it was a corn maze with no one in it,” Al Krupski said. “But we did develop an informal theme of scares in there.”
Nick Krupski recalls scaring guests with a friend when he was in middle school.
“We were wearing camouflage and a Halloween mask,” he recalled. “It started out as a jump-scare. It was very, ‘Scream, then laugh.’ ”
Today, there are half a dozen spooky characters roaming the Krupski corn maze.
At Stakey’s there are trivia and quiz questions throughout, and if you get a question right, you get a hint about where to go next. Get it wrong and you’re greeted with a funny cut-out character that lets you know you’re on your own.
Harbes has three themed corn mazes each year, one at each of its locations. This year, there’s a Wizard of Oz theme in Mattituck and a Robin Hood theme for Riverhead and Jamesport, with the Riverhead theme transforming to spooky on select nights leading up to Halloween.
“For us, it isn’t just about designing a challenging maze to walk through. We also want to create a fun, interactive adventure that guests will really remember,” Harbes said.
For all these farmers, it’s a labor of love.
“There’s just nothing like seeing happy people,” Stakey said.