Saturday, April 20, 2024

Maize maze cultivates farm connections

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Matamata farmers open up four hectares of maize to the public.
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Just a few hours after officially opening his four-hectare maize labyrinth to the public, Phil Sherwood was struck by a moment of panic.

“Our very first people to go into the maze were a grandma and her two grandkids, and after two-and-a-half hours they still hadn’t come out. I thought, ‘Oh heck, what have we done?’

“We sent our boys in to find them, and it turns out they weren’t lost – they were just taking their time and enjoying the experience,” says the Federated Farmers Waikato dairy vice-chair.  

In fact, Sherwood and his family have been slightly taken aback at quite how much visitors have enjoyed navigating the maze and learning about farming in the process. “The number of questions we’ve had about rural life, farming and maize has been incredible. It’s been a real opportunity to bridge that rural-urban divide. 

“We’ve had so many repeat conversations about maize because people think they’re standing in a field of corn. A lot of people go, ‘This corn is so tall’.

“As they’ve learned about what we do on the farm, and what maize is used for, they’ve been blown away.” 

Sherwood says the idea for a maze on their dairy farm just south of Matamata (they own another in nearby Richmond Downs) came to him while milking last August. 

“I thought it might be something fun for us to do as a family and a way to build connection with our community.

“We wanted to open our farm gates to the public, which is not something us farmers do often.” 

He, his wife Marlene and boys Tommy and Locky decided they’d give it a crack this summer, but it took a while to work out how to create it. 

“We did a trial with precision planting (GPS mapping) to create one-third of the maze. It wasn’t the easiest process for our contractor, but we got there.

“And then we planted the rest conventionally and hand-cut that part of the maze. There’s a lot of manual labour goes into it.”

They opened the maze in January, running 10:30am to 3pm on Saturdays and Sundays, at $10 per person.  

Visitors can buy cold drinks, snacks, homegrown corn and free-range eggs. 

Each visitor or group faces the challenge of finding 12 stations in the maze, with each station showing a picture of a different number of cows, which change each day. 

The first person to go through the maze and tally up the cows from all 12 stations wins a daily prize pack provided by local businesses, Sherwood explains.  

“We offered 12 local businesses the chance to name one station after their business, like a promotion for them at no cost, except they could offer spot prizes.  

“It’s been an opportunity to go back to those suppliers and businesses that we use – like Open Country, Evolve Fitness and Redoubt Bar – and give back to them. As farmers, we’re notorious for hitting them up for a deal but we never have anything to give back apart from our business.” 

Phil and Marlene Sherwood with sons Locky and Tommy.

Sherwood says most people spend about 45 to 90 minutes in the maze – but some much longer. 

“It’s been hot as hell most days, but people are really determined to do the whole challenge. If they can’t find all 12 stations, you can tell some of them are really gutted.”

The family’s had visitors from all over New Zealand, and abroad, including the UK, America, and India. 

“One who stands out was a guy from the Netherlands who farms in Ukraine, where his wife is from. He runs an arable cropping and dairy farm near Kyiv. 

“What blows me away is that this guy’s from a country where there’s a war going on, but we still had so much in common because we could talk farmer to farmer.”

Sherwood says the family’s not doing it to make money, but to create some enjoyment for all involved. 

“It’s a labour of love. We’re helping to connect people with farming, and that’s a cool thing to be doing.” 

The Sherwood Family Farm Maze Maize will be harvested in early March but will reopen next summer, with the family aiming to run it from late December through to February.  

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