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The Agrotainer finds a niche

Every fall, Bob Schmidt welcomes about 50,000 visitors to his Greenback, Tenn., farm. They learn about farm life, have fun and, not so coincidentally, leave some money behind.

With customers for his corn maze and pumpkin farm driving from as far as 250 miles away, Maple Lane Farms now is a tourist destination. "I can’t believe it," Schmidt says. "I have to pinch myself. But I enjoy this. I’m a public kind of guy. And now I’ve got to deal with people of all kinds. I have to be ready for anything."

Make no mistake. Schmidt’s farm really is a farm, not some Disney-fied version of one. Visitors like it that way.

He grows corn, wheat, soybeans, and oats. A former president of the Tennessee Cattlemen’s Association, Schmidt also has a cow-calf operation he calls the "Kodak" herd because of its wide variety of breed backgrounds.

"This is an opportunity for people to see a working farm. This is no big estate. It’s no Busch Gardens or Dollywood. What we’re doing is making memories for people," he says.

It all started in 1993, when he decided to grow pumpkins and sell them directly to the public. He thought a Pumpkin Day celebration might bring more people to the farm. He mailed invitations to friends and acquaintances and convinced local media outlets to run stories about the event.

Family members ran the show, selling hot dogs, pinto beans and cornbread along with the pumpkins. "It’s kind of funny now that we sent out invitations. Now we send out press releases saying that we’re open, and we just stand back and let them pour in," he says.

Pumpkins still rate high with customers. But the corn maze alone brings in 30,000 visitors at $6 each. Maple Lane Farms’ maze, started in 1999, was the area’s first, and it’s clearly still a favorite. Schmidt redesigns the maze each year, with a new theme. Opening at about sundown in 2001, scarily-dressed employees, one wielding a chainsaw, would jump out at visitors working their way through it. Visitors got clues on which way to go by correctly answering questions about agriculture.

"I added the maze thinking that the people who came here for pumpkins could have something else to do while they were here. That’s when things really took off. All of a sudden I had a tiger by the tail, and it sort of evolved from being a pumpkin patch into a major enterprise that has allowed the farm to do things a lot differently. We’ve shifted our major cash flow into October, so now the farm payments come due in October. But it wasn’t a get-rich-quick scheme. There’s too much work involved for that. You’ve got to really want to do this in order to make it work," Schmidt says.

Setting up the maze requires a lot of work, including replanting corn by hand. Dealing with the media turns Schmidt into a one-man public relations department. Putting on a smile for visitors daily sometimes isn’t easy, either.

"We get 600 to 800 schoolchildren a day on buses during the season. Kids will be kids but I enjoy dealing with them. They get a hayride and a pumpkin, and we answer their questions. Sometimes there are lots of questions. They get a big kick out of the cows. Some of these are inner-city kids and they’ve never been close to a cow before. We’re talking to kids of all ages because lots of times the moms and dads come with them.

"That’s important because less than 2 percent of the population farms today. I’ve heard that more people work for Wal-Mart than farm for a living. So it’s important to show them what a farm is all about, to walk them through the barn, to show them the chutes and the machinery. We pose for pictures and end up in somebody’s photo album where they can look back and remember the fun they had here. You can’t put a value on that," Schmidt says.

He relishes the positive attitude his banker now has, but Schmidt says money is not his main priority. Two years ago he began to understand what his business was all about.

"I met with the employees and said that from now on, money is not a priority for Maple Lane Farms. We’re not here to sell stuff. Our prices are right, and we’re not going to worry about that. I said here’s what we’re selling: smiles on faces, families holding hands and having fun, laughter, memories. That’s why we’re doing this. If we’re successful selling that, money is going to be here when people leave. If you go into something like this trying to get all the money you can, you might be successful once but you might not be successful twice," Schmidt says.

A native of New Jersey, where his parents owned a vegetable farm and operated a roadside market, Schmidt came to east Tennessee in 1974 to attend Maryville College, a small liberal arts institution. Upon graduation, business degree in hand, he worked in sales and even was the night manager at a Shoney’s Restaurant. He couldn’t shake the desire to farm, though, and bought his farm in 1985.

"You have to find what you want to do in life and make a job out of it. That’s what I’ve done. I made my decision and I was committed to it. My plans have changed many times but my commitment was always there. I was committed to getting it done. In 1985, I had $20,000 and an idea that buying calves in the fall and holding them through the winter could make money. Everything grew out of that," he says.

"This really is a wonderful life. We farmers get so wound up in the prices of our products and input prices and the sorry state agriculture is in, and we don’t take a personal inventory and find out where we’re at in life. Things are not all doom and gloom. We have a lot of equity in this stuff, and in the future that’s going to be key."

His parents, Albert and Shirley Schmidt, moved down from New Jersey and now work on the farm with him. Truck farming was in Albert’s blood, so he now grows his own 25 acres of sweet corn, along with cucumbers, bell pepper and cantaloupes.

Schmidt says an operation like his won’t work for most farms. "You can’t see it as a chance to save the farm. I grew up selling things to people in that roadside stand in New Jersey. I enjoy dealing with the public, and I know how to deal with the public. I had the desire to do this. I’m the kind of guy who needs to be doing something all the time," Schmidt says.

"I look at all this as an opportunity. Come Halloween, people need a pumpkin on the porch, and I have an opportunity to sell them one. We have a little store here with Tennessee products, if they’re interested in buying honey or jam or things like that. We’ve got straw, mums, cornstalks, whatever they need to decorate the yard."

He’s already working on the farm’s 2002 theme. The slogan for the season will be, ‘You can always go to the city, always go to the mall, here’s your chance to come to the farm.’

"More people are interested in where their food comes from, and in food safety. I think they’re going to get more and more interested in it, too. So we’re giving them a chance to come here and learn about it. Are we really educating them? No, not really. We’re just giving them a chance to see a working farm, and answering their questions," Schmidt says.

Schmidt now calls himself an ‘agrotainer’, combining agriculture and entertainment. "It’s a word I made up. But it describes me better than anything else," he says.

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