Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

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September 6, 2013

Corn maze cutter stalks fall fun across country

FUQUAY-VARINA, N.C. — Timothy Day isn’t exactly sick of corn by the end of the summer, but ...

“If I had a penny every time I’ve heard, ‘This is a-MAZE-ing,’ I’d certainly be rich by now,” he says with a chuckle.

Over the past couple of months, Day has cut more than 50 corn mazes. Someone else does the designs, but there’s definitely some artistry in the way he spins that steering knob.

“My paintbrush is a rototiller,” Day says. “And a tractor hooked to it.”

Most people associate corn mazes with Halloween, but the work starts long before October.

Day’s season began the last week in June. Since then, he and his partner have been as far north as Ontario, Canada, as far south as Florida, and to “almost every state between here and there.”

“It’s not out of the ordinary for us to drive 3,000 or 4,000 miles in five days and cut out 10 or 12 corn mazes in that amount of time,” says Day, who lives in Edinburg, Va., and who’s been doing this since 2005. “Our truck is our hotel. We actually sleep in the truck most of the time. We keep either the tractor driving or the truck driving, one or the other. One of us is driving something almost 24 hours a day.”

Day cuts for Maize Quest out of New Park, Pa. Company owner Hugh McPherson says this season has been a logistical nightmare.

“The rain has been sending us to scheduling haywire for the cutting crew,” says McPherson, aka “The Maze Master.”

He and Day have to stagger the cutting schedule to catch the corn at just the right growth stage. If it’s too mature, the plants will grow back in the paths he’s cut.

Day likes to cut the corn when it’s about waist- or chest-high, but that’s not just for practical reasons. He’s allergic once the corn tassels.

“Basically, anywhere that the pollen touches me, I just get a really itchy rash,” says Day, who ran into that problem this year outside Memphis, Tenn. “It gets to where the pollen is so thick in your eyes ... you can feel the grit on your eyeballs and, literally, for three days my eyes will run yellow.”

Once he gets to a farm, it’s all fairly routine.

First, he drives around the field’s perimeter to establish the boundaries for the GPS system. Then he fits the design into that shape, and the computer does the rest.

“There’s very little room for error in our corn mazes,” he says. “They’re tight-packed. The trails are close to together. So a little mistake breaks through a whole wall and changes the whole maze.”

With some designs, Day — who runs landscaping business the rest of the year — has to go in with a lawnmower. And occasionally he’ll arrive to find that the field’s not quite big enough to accommodate the artist’s vision.

“And then I get to play a little bit of designer on the fly,” he says. “It’s kind of fun when that happens, too.”

Most of the work takes place between sunup and sundown. But Day has been known to cut in the dark.

“You’ve got to trust this more,” he says, hoisting the little black box in his right hand.

Sometimes, getting to the job is the hardest part.

On a recent Saturday, Day’s truck limped into this little bedroom community south of Raleigh just before dawn.

He was supposed to cut the field at Naylor Family Farms on Aug. 16, but a band of thunderstorms turned him away. He was scheduled to do another maze in Chesnee, S.C., the following Friday morning, and decided to hit Naylor before dusk that evening.

But just outside Charlotte, Day’s pickup truck started giving him trouble. He’d just swapped out the transmission a few days earlier, and now the new one was going out on him.

Not wanting to let Robert Naylor down again, Day picked his way across the state — driving 15 miles, stopping to let the truck cool down, then doing another 15 miles.

“It took me 15 hours to get here when it should have taken four,” the bleary-eyed redhead with the day’s growth of beard said with a wan smile.

The majority of mazes Day cuts are about 5 or 6 acres, though he’s done fields as large as 13 acres. The stand of corn at Naylor Family Farms is just shy of 10.

Naylor went with a pirate theme last year. This season, he chose a maze called “Escape from Egypt,” with pyramids, palm trees and a giant camel at the center.

This is Naylor’s third year doing a maze. He says it takes him a couple of weeks to memorize the path.

“It’s easy to get disoriented, even if you have your map,” he says as turkey buzzards circle overhead.  “And that’s the point of it, I guess. It’s kind of fun when you get lost — if you’re not in a hurry.”

Day isn’t just a Maize Quest employee. He’s also a client.

His brother, Jonathan, runs Bridgemont Farm, a 500-acre spread in Virginia’s picturesque Shenandoah Valley, where the family raises corn, soybeans and beef cattle. Day cut their design in July.

The 12-acre field is divided into two interconnected mazes — “The Great Train Adventure,” with a giant steam locomotive, and “The Dinosaur Adventure,” featuring a Triceratops and Tyrannosaurus rex.

The big rush is over. But Day’s odyssey won’t truly be finished until late November or early December, when he heads to Palm City, Fla., to cut a winter maze.

Despite the grueling, sometimes monotonous schedule, the maze-maker has so far avoided maize malaise.

“I like corn,” Day insists. “I love corn.”

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