Published July 15th, 2022 at 6:00 AM
Rob Stouffer describes his summers as a bit of a carnival.
Every couple of days he and his team travel to a new location, unload the trailer, carve a design into a field and film it from aloft before packing up and driving to the next spot.
He started Precision Mazes 22 years ago and it’s taken him all over North America putting designs in corn fields, beaches and acres of harvested wheat.
“It’s just a unique opportunity to meet people from all over,” Stouffer said with a laugh. “I tend to take it for granted, because I’m always thinking about the next project.”
Corn mazes are a key element of fall agritourism, a sector of agriculture focused on enticing families to the farm to pick their own produce, play games and enjoy the outdoors. Market research predicts the agritourism industry will grow to $63 billion worldwide by 2027.
Stouffer said corn mazes are at the core of his business, but recently he’s branched into other forms of crop art.
Last year Precision Mazes partnered with Netflix and carved a sand design to promote the entertainment conglomerate’s “Outer Banks” series. In 2020 Stouffer also combined his craft with his love for the Kansas City Chiefs and put coach Andy Reid’s face in a 27-acre dirt field. More recently, he did a similar project featuring Royals catcher Salvador Pérez.
The massive designs are typically completed in a day or two with Stouffer in the driver’s seat of a small tractor with a tiller attached on the front. The carnival-like efficiency is only achieved with careful planning through the winter.
It can take months of preparation before Stouffer tills the corn maze path into a crop that’s already started growing. In colder months, the Precision Mazes creative team works with business owners to create a design and adapt it to fit in the field.
These aren’t simple geometric mazes. Past designs have included a design of Willie Nelson, a “Greetings from Earth” postcard and a rendering of Salvador Dali.
The complex designs are possible because Stouffer uses GPS technology to properly position himself in the field. It’s the same technology that allows farmers to better adjust their crop treatments to land variability and thus increase yield.
Stouffer uses the GPS to map his position in the tractor and match it with the plans the team made for the field earlier in the process.
Decades into the business, Stouffer is trying to encourage clients to partner with local entities in their maze designs. It leads to more meaningful designs and, ultimately, more people coming out to the farms.
For example, just north of Kansas City, Weston Red Barn Farm is partnering with a local charity for a maze design.
“They are doing good and are partnering with folks to make more of their corn maze than simply a walk in the corn,” Stouffer said. “I’m hoping clients see that there’s even a greater value that they can get from their field.”
A pumpkin patch outside of El Dorado, Kansas, is running with that idea and partnering with the local chamber of commerce to make a maze with elements of the El Dorado flag.
Becky Walters of Walters’ Farm & Pumpkin Patch in El Dorado said the corn maze is a big draw for customers in the fall. Even though visitors can’t tell what the design is from inside the maze, seeing the aerial photos on social media gets them out to the farm.
“When you’re designing something like Chief’s Kingdom (last year’s design), we’re drawing even from the Kansas City area for people to come down and see this cool maze,” Walters said. She laughed, “We told them we wanted Mahomes to come down, to let us know when he was coming, but that didn’t happen.”
Walters said El Dorado introduced a new flag design several years ago and she wanted to highlight it in the maze.
“So we are really excited about the design that we’re working on,” Walters said. “If you can dream it up, Rob and his wife can develop it.”
While cutting the maze, another member of the Stouffer family and Precision Maze team operates a drone to capture mesmerizing time lapse videos and aerial photos of the finished mazes.
This content is part of the package, so the small business owners can use it on their social media pages to attract agritourists to the farm.
“We’re trying to create tools that help our clients be more successful, draw more people out to their farms, so they can enjoy it, and social media is clearly a key to that,” Stouffer said.
The Stouffers have been cutting the corn mazes at Louisburg Cider Mill, the local, year-round farm attraction, for more than a decade.
Josh Hebert, the owner of the farm and business, said several years ago his son came up with a design for the maze.
Since then the maze design has been a contest for kids up to ages 18. It’s fun for the young ones to see their design get put in the field and it’s another way for the business to connect with their clientele.
Ultimately, Stouffer hopes mazes and crop art will help bring more people out to the farm and give them a greater understanding of the industry.
“What’s happening out here in God’s creation, it’s unique,” Stouffer said. “And it’s great to see where your food is being grown.”
Cami Koons covers rural affairs for Kansas City PBS in cooperation with Report for America. The work of our Report for America corps members is made possible, in part, through the generous support of the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation.