Ranching – cattle, hay, tractors…and corn mazes?
Wyoming’s many family owned ranches and farms do not always have an easy go of it and it is not always profitable. But a few are starting to look to “agri-tourism” as inspiration for some supplemental income.
On a recent Saturday, a group of kids led their parents through a narrow aisle. When they entered the maze, they passed a sign that said if they get lost someone will come find them on Thursday. But this does not deter them.
“No, worries. If we get lost, they’ll come find us on Thursday,” one kid said half laughing.
Only the blue, crisp sky and tips of snow covered mountains are visible above 10 feet of corn stalks all around.
They are navigating through a corn maze a little bigger than a football field in Clark, which is 30 minutes from Cody, Powell and Red Lodge, Montana.
“We didn't know if people were going to actually want to drive out to Clark, Wyoming,” said Bridget Gallagher. “I mean, it's not in the big, big town.”
She and her husband, Cecil Gallagher, own Gallagher’s Natural Beef and Produce. They own 600 acres, lease another 500 acres and have 300 head of cows. They grow corn and sell it to the nearby communities. All their meat is hormone and antibiotic free. All of these things add value to their products, but it is still hard to make a profit.
“Ranching is a hard way of life. So you always have to have other avenues of income,” said Bridget.
Bridget said eight years ago, she and her husband decided to start a corn maze and pumpkin patch on their ranch to see if they could make additional income and be able to support their family of 11. It worked.
“It helps us pay the bills through the winter. It’s been so beneficial. We don't have to go get a job during the winter months, and we're able just to push through,” she said.
This is something farms out on the East coast started figuring out in the early 2000s. Mark Mitchell, a Coastal Carolina University professor, researches how supplemental activities on farms keep those family businesses afloat.
“It allows farmers to diversify their income. They're generating revenue from places and activities they weren't previously,” said Mitchell. “They're diversifying their risk of income. One bad farming year doesn't have as big of an impact when you've spread the risk.”
Mitchell called this agri-tourism. Farmers and ranchers have things like corn mazes, pumpkin patches, harvest festivals, and hayrides. And it is not only in the autumn when you can do these things – it is year-round, like berry picking and farmer’s markets. It increases the yield of their asset, their land. It also minimizes their risk.
“If you have a bad crop year, that doesn't mean fewer folks will come to the hay ride or to the corn maze, or something like that,” said Mitchell. “Imagine now being able to generate revenue during what would have otherwise been a non-generating revenue or a quiet period. So it's a very powerful thing.”
Corn mazes have become much more advanced in the years since Mitchell started researching them. Many use GPS technology to map a special design that can only be seen from the sky. But here in Wyoming, there are only about three corn mazes in the entire state. And the Gallaghers keep it simple, said Bridget’s husband Cecil.
“We don't use GPS. We just kind of wing it. So the design is kind of a surprise to us when we see it from the air,” Cecil said. “So I'm just out there and we just try to create something that's challenging, but you don't want it to be too difficult.”
Cecil said he just goes out and cuts the corn with a zero turn lawn mower, and then someone comes out with a drone and creates a map.
“You don't want a lot of dead ends. You get a lot of people here. So you want it to be free flowing. You don't want people coming out and ruin it for the others, like, ‘Oh, that's a dead end' on their way out,” he said.
Even with some ominous clouds dotting the sky, kids ran around, going down a slide off a stack of hay bales, petting the goats and pigs and tossing bean bags. Adults stood around with food and beverages from the concession stand. Almost everything the Gallaghers sell, they have produced themselves – the corn on the cob, the hot dogs and the burgers.
“They [people] can taste it. Because I think that that's one of the best forms of advertisement on the meat and the things too,” said Bridget. “So that has really helped with that end of our business also.”
It is their own marketing for their produce and meats.
On the way out, four-year-old Audrey is picking out pumpkins. She listed out all of the things she has done so far.
“I fly on the slide, goats, the pigs, and the cows and then the pumpkins!”
In the end that is what this one month is really about: good family time out in the fresh air.