Angie Lathrop | Lodi, Wisconsin
But we always lived in town, in the La Crosse area. My dad’s a physician and my mom was a nurse. From the time I was little, I knew I wanted to be a veterinarian. I was finally able to get a dog when I was in fourth grade. I eventually did go to veterinary school and was a practicing veterinarian in Lodi when I met Alan. He was living on a farm. Once I moved to his family’s farm I had goats, pigs, horses, dogs and cats. Veterinary school, and especially the large animal training classes, helped prepare me for farm life. But it is a good thing I like living on a farm just as much as my six-year-old self thought that I would.
Treinen Farm has been in my husband’s family for over 100 years. He’s the third generation on the farm and our kids are the fourth. Alan’s family first purchased this farm in 1921, so we are a century farm. In 1937 his grandparents built the house that our family lives in today When the farm was initially homesteaded it was a subsistence sort of farm, which was typical at the time. You had a few cows and a few pigs, you put in a little bit of corn and wheat and then you sell some of the cash crops. Alan’s family had cows and it was a dairy farm for a while.
My husband had pigs here when I met him, and he farmed corn, soybeans, and hay. He also had half an acre of pumpkins. A few years before that he had purchased draft horses – because he just liked horses. He was giving people rides to the pumpkin patch. So when I met him he had this little pumpkin patch weekend thing, and I started helping out.
When we got married and had kids I thought, ‘okay, this farm has to generate some income.’ With farming today, if you have a thousand acres then you could potentially make enough to support a family. But we didn’t have anywhere near that. The farm was considered large many years ago, but now 200 acres is considered to be fairly small for a working crop farm. We already had the pumpkin patch, so we had a little tourism thing going on and we enjoyed it.
Families came to the farm for their pumpkins when their kids were little. But we noticed that they stopped coming as kids got older. So, we wanted to add things to our farm that older kids and grownups would like to do. We heard about people putting corn mazes on their farms, so we went to check one out in Mount Horeb. This was about 1999 and there weren’t very many of them in Wisconsin. It was August, I was carrying our one-year-old in a backpack, it was ridiculously hot and unpleasant.
My husband’s first comment was, ‘We’re paying $6 to walk in someone’s cornfield? No way. No one’s ever going to do this.’ But we decided to try it. In 2001 we put in our first maze. I was really anxious because I’m not a business person. We had to put $20,000 to get it up and running and I was just so worried that we were not going to make that money back. But people came and it was great! So then every year we did a little bit more with the maze and started adding things slowly. Until eventually our business became so busy that I had to stop practicing veterinary medicine.
When we started doing a corn maze, I found out that there’s this whole network of people who did agritourism. I didn’t even know that that was a word. But combining agriculture and tourism as a way to bring people to farms is a great business idea for small farms like ours. The first thing we did was go to the North American Farmers’ Direct Marketing Association conference. The conference was kind of overwhelming because there was so much information, but it was all really helpful because we were able to talk to people who were actually doing corn mazes.
For our first maze in 2001, we hired a consultant who showed us how they had cut their maze. My husband learned how to cut it into the field. We cut the corn when it’s only a foot tall, so we need to cut in the trails in June. Eventually, the corn gets to be 10 feet tall around you. Then you have these trails, basically, all you see as you walk through the maze are these corridors of corn.
There are a lot of different ways to run a corn maze. What we do is we give people a map of the maze. And there’s a little section of the map on there and there is a little star marked on the map, and it’s enough for them to find the entrance to the maze. That little star represents a mailbox that’s in the maze. So visitors navigate to that mailbox to find the next piece of their map. We give them little tape circles to tape on the map and they navigate from mailbox to mailbox filling in their map to find their way out. We developed this method our first year and it works really great. That first year went well, but I didn’t really know what I was doing yet.
It turns out I can draw things, at least I can draw things that can be designed into a giant cornfield. For the first few years of our corn maze, we hired a graphic designer. But I started to realize that I knew what people enjoyed in a maze and knew what kind of maze we wanted, so I started designing our 15-acre mazes myself.
We have a very successful maze with up to twenty thousand visitors each year. There are a few key things that make a great maze. It has to be beautiful. It has to be well-designed, so people don’t get frustrated and cut through the corn to get out of the maze. And the theme has to be interesting. I need to come up with a theme that has good stories and is interesting enough that I can talk to people about it for two and a half months and not get bored with the topic.
Every year it’s different. We’ve done Greek mythology, we’ve done Aesop’s fables, we designed a unicorn maze. In 2020 I had an idea I was excited about. I was going to design a wolf because there were lots of stories we could do with a wolf. We could talk about wolves in mythology, we could talk about wolves as predators. But then the pandemic happened, and I wasn’t feeling good about talking about predators. We still didn’t know what was going to happen with Covid – I was worried that many of the people I know were going to die.
So, I decided the maze needed to be a place that was hopeful, a little refuge from the crazy world. I almost designed a basket full of kittens, but then I remembered something I learned about at the Saturday Science Event at the Institute for Discovery on the UW-Madison campus. I had taken my kids there when they were little because there were all sorts of family-friendly activities. One of the science booths had Tardigrades, these little water bears that are about a millimeter long. Tardigrades typically live in moss, so we looked at some moss samples through a microscope and we could see them crawling around.
I couldn’t believe I had gone my entire life and never heard about one of the most amazing animals on the entire planet. Tardigrades can be found in extreme environments all over the planet. They were taken experimentally into outer space and exposed to the vacuum for days at a time and were just fine when they came back. When I remembered about the Tardigrades, I knew what our maze would be. I mean we all needed to be resilient in 2020. Plus, they look kind of little teddy bears, have eight legs, they’re puffy and rolly-polly, they are just super adorable.
We like to have stories to share with customers, so we told stories about the water bear and that it is one of the most resilient animals on the planet. The t-shirt said, ‘they can survive extreme heat, outer space, extreme cold, and 2020.’ People loved that shirt. It was the perfect theme for 2020. The powerful response to our water bear maze, really made me think differently about what I design. Now I ask myself, ‘what do we need in this particular moment in this particular world?’
This year our maze is a child on a tree swing. For me, the world feels extra stressful. I spend a lot of time outside, which is the most therapeutic thing for me. I decided to design our maze around a tree because I wanted that connection to nature. I think If we all spent more time outside, we would be better off. Tree designs can be really intricate–you have leaves, roots, and branches. I spent weeks working on it. I was laying in bed one night and I realized, ‘well I can’t just have a tree. I need a person in there too.’ I wanted the maze to show that we need the natural world and the natural world needs us.
The pandemic allowed us to change our business model to focus on our core business, which is the corn maze and the experience of being outside in a beautiful setting. We expanded access to the natural beauty of the farm. We’ve added a big hiking area, created the Enchanted Woods where kids can find the fairy doors, and we’ve got all kinds of places set up so that it’s easy for kids to play in the woods.
Prior to the pandemic, we were giving horse-drawn wagon rides to our pumpkin patch. We had a pumpkin slingshot. We had a lot of different things and we didn’t restrict entry at all. Sometimes we’d have thousands of people here at the same time and it was crazy. I was getting tired to the point where I thought, ‘I don’t know if I want to do this anymore.’ Now people need to sign up online and select a time, which has allowed us to keep it from becoming overwhelmingly crowded. Now our farm business is more sustainable, and my husband and I think we could do this for a lot longer.
Our business is very different from the historic farming practiced on this farm over the past one hundred years, but farmers have always had to innovate. I wish we could show Alan’s grandparents what we are doing today–I think they would love it and be so happy that the farm is still doing well and still in the family.
Photo 1: 2022 corn maze design (Tree Swing.) Photo 2: 2021 corn maze design (Schrödinger’s Cat and Other Thought Experiments)