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Wandering about corn

By Staff | Sep 11, 2009

A bird’s-eye view of the 2009 Corn Maize from the top of a silo at the Allee Research Farm near Newell. The path is designed in the shape of the statue of liberty and a 13-star Betsy Ross flag. Those exploring the maze will learn about corn and its many uses.

NEWELL – With a good head for direction and the help of the morning sun fixed in the east, it’s not so hard for explorers to keep their bearings – but that won’t necessarily help them find their way out of a maze.

“When I cut this out I thought people would be able to see the silos and that would be a dead giveaway. But it doesn’t look like that’s going to be the case,” said Lyle Rossitor, superintendent of Iowa State University’s Allee research farm, in southeast Buena Vista County. “A minute ago we were in the arm, but now I’m not exactly sure.”

A cool summer and regular rains have kept the corn at the farm growing up to just over 10 feet. Now the corn maze that Rossitor started laying out in the spring is puzzling as its name suggests.

From the air it looks like an outline of the statue of liberty laid over a sketch of the original 13-star Betsy Ross flag. From inside the tall rows of stocks, however, the maze is a labyrinth of loops, dead ends and slightly claustrophobic passages that often appear to lead back toward the outside only to detour deeper into the design.

It’s a fun family distraction that Rossitor and his partners at the Iowa Corn Growers Association hope will help teach its visitors a little bit about the importance of corn to Iowa and the world.

Allee Research Farm Superintendent Lyle Rossitor measures a plant inside the farm's corn maze located south of Newell. This year the stalks have grown to over 10 feet, which should keep maize explorers from getting an eye on silos or other landmarks.

On Sept. 13, 20 and 27, the Allee farm and the ICGA will invite visitors to explore the maze, or maize, and learn about the thousands of other uses for corn.

“Fewer people live on the farm now than they used to, so a lot of people, even (those) that live in Iowa, have never really been out in a field and don’t know how important corn is to so many things in everyday life,” Rossitor said. “Corn is used in everything from pop and snacks to things like plastics and we try to get a little bit of that message across.”

Hundreds of visitors, from school groups to curious vacationers, are expected to try their luck finding a way through the maize. When they do, ICGA volunteers will be on hand to distribute information and talk with explorers about their product.

Other events, like scavenger hunts, where participants scour the maize to find candy bars, soda and other treats made with corn products, are planned to help get the message across.

“When the kids have something to look at, like corn flakes or corn syrup, that starts to make a connection for them,” Rossitor said. “Also they just love to go out and explore the maize. Sometimes young kids will try to cheat and run between the rows, but it’s all safe and it ends up being a blast for them.”

Rossitor setup the first corn maze at Allee last year to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the farm as part of the ISU system. The original 40-acre spread was one of several farms in the Newell area owned by George Allee.

Allee helped pioneer the field of corn genetics by inviting his fellow farmers to contests where judges would chose the best ears and keep the grain for planting and cross breeding.

Today, the farm hosts numerous studies on crop and animal agriculture. Main interests for university researchers include corn and soybean cultivation and population tests and a long-term genetics study of Angus cattle.

As the farm’s full-time tenant and superintendent, Rossitor also works extensively with local community and youth groups. Service projects range from providing a space for a 4-H apple orchard to hosting a school-to-work program for students interested in entering agriculture.

Creating the corn maze is a relatively new chore for Rossitor. He draws a design on graph paper then cuts the pattern once the corn has grown tall enough for its growth point to emerged from the ground. The cut is made with a regular riding lawnmower and no more technology than the graphed out sketch and a good eyeballing to flesh out the design.

“I just take a good look at things and at my sketch and try to follow what I need to do to make it come out looking about right,” Rossitor said. “I could try something more sophisticated to lay it out, but so far everyone has been pretty happy with the results.”

Once the corn grows up groups have found multiple uses for the maze, he said. During the first season volunteers charged no entrance fee, did accepted contributions of non-perishable food items to help stock local pantries.

Later, the maize was reused by a group of high school students who redressed the field as an outdoor haunted house. High winds, eventually chased the spooks, and everyone else, out of the corn, but not before the group raised around $1,800 for an injured classmate.

Rossitor and local corn growers are hoping the attraction will prove equally as popular this season. The maze will be open to visitors from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. each Sunday in September. As an educational tool and as a pleasant family experience, Rossitor said the chance to connect with agriculture hands-on has already shown it has the power to fire visitors’ imaginations.

“Even with just the sign out on the road, you will see people turn around and come back because they’re curious,” Rossitor said. “We had a lot of local people and school kids come through last year, but we also had people from all across the country who came in too, just because they saw the sign.”

Contact Kevin Stillman by e-mail at Stillman.kw@gmail.com.

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