Farms carve out niche

Farms carve out niche in tourism

Staff WriterSeptember 7, 2005 

After three years researching how to turn a farm into a tourist attraction, Pam Griffin is ready to face the public.

On Friday, the Griffin family farm will open as the Maze at Hector's Creek, a bucolic playground designed to give city folk a taste of country living.

The centerpiece of Griffin's agritourism venture is a nine-acre corn maze cut into the shape of the No. 10 Valvoline race car driven by NASCAR driver Scott Riggs -- a native of the Durham County community of Bahama.

The maze is on a 46-acre tract of farmland in Harnett County about three miles southwest of Fuquay-Varina. The land has been in the Griffin family for five generations, and most of that time it has produced tobacco.

But with the decline of big tobacco, farming families such as the Griffins are being forced to rethink their way of life.

"This is so far from my father-in-law's idea of farming," said Griffin, 41, who farms the land with her husband, John. "But you've got to think outside the farming box."

The Maze at Hector's Creek is a mix of ideas the Griffins picked up from farmer marketing conferences, the Internet and visits to other corn mazes. Hector's Creek will also include a pumpkin patch, a wildflower plot and hay rides.

A former teacher, Griffin is offering a "cultivating readers" program that allows children who read 15 books to be admitted free.

Griffin's ambitious maze design required permission from MBV Motorsports, owner of the No. 10 car. She brought in a specialist from Missouri who spent two days using a global positioning system to map and cut the maze, which will offer visitors about a mile and a half of paths.

Griffin said she hopes to draw 5,000 visitors to the farm before it closes Oct. 31, which would cover her expenses.

The Maze at Hector's Farm is the latest entrant into the Triangle's fall corn maze circuit, which runs from early September to mid-November.

In Garner, Ken Walker has been plowing Ken's Korny Corn Maze in Garner for five seasons. Walker said he attracts 8,000 visitors during a good year, although that number fluctuates depending on the weather.

"If it's 95 degrees, ain't nobody want to walk through a cornfield," Walker, 43, said. The same goes for rain, as local maze growers found out in 2002 when a wet October hurt business.

Walker's foray into agritourism brought some raised eyebrows from family and friends.

"My father has always farmed this land," said Walker, who owns 50 acres off N.C. 50 south of Garner. "When he saw the money I was spending to do this, he thought I'd lost my mind."

The arrival of GPS has made the creation of elaborate corn mazes relatively simple.

Walker used GPS to create this year's maze, a scene that includes a tractor plowing a field, a barn, silo, mountains and a sunset. The two-day operation was a breeze compared with the two weeks it took before GPS.

"It was a lot of tape measures, guessing and praying," he said of the early years.

At Ganyard Hill Farm in Durham, Milton Ganyard, 62, still cuts his corn maze the old-fashioned way.

"I do it myself," he said. "I get on a tractor with a mower, work a path, see where I've been, then make another path."

Ganyard said his farm primarily appeals to children, which means using expensive GPS technology doesn't fit into his budget.

One of the most successful agritourism farms in the state is Hill Ridge Farms in Youngsville, where owner John Hill said he hopes to attract more than 50,000 visitors this year. The farm offers, among other things, a train ride, gem stone panning and an 80-foot country slide where riders sit on burlap sacks.

After 25 years in business, Hill said the farm will offer a corn maze for the first time this fall.

"I just hated to do it, I'm already so busy," he said.

Griffin said no matter how many people show up this fall, she views the Maze at Hector's Farm as a long-term investment. She already has an idea for next year's maze design, which she refused to share.

Staff writer David Bracken can be reached at 829-4548 or dbracken@newsobserver.com.

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