Success for corn maze entrepreneur
The recent college graduate has been creating corn mazes since he was an enterprising 9-year-old who persuaded his dad to let him cut a few paths with dead ends in a cornfield on the family's 200-acre farm. His first maze attracted 500 paying visitors. Subsequent mazes grew more elaborate, and eventually sprouted the Internet business Corn Mazes America while Skelly still was in high school.
Now in his 13th summer of the corn-maze business, Skelly drives around the country in a former ambulance with a bed for sleeping, and a contraption he rigged to cut designs - an old riding lawnmower with a wooden box bolted in front to hold a laptop computer and a GPS system. A satellite receiver attached to the mower pokes above the corn, helping Skelly follow coordinates on his laptop with amazing accuracy.
He can mow any picture imaginable in knee-high corn, from a Wild West scene to a replica of the Mayflower.
"There are three or four other people in the whole country who have the same job as me," said Skelly, who admits his clients are surprised by his age when they meet him.
Skelly spends four to 12 hours creating each maze, slightly hunched and squinting through the sun at his laptop as he bounces through a bumpy cornfield on a lawnmower that turns on a dime.
It's all part of a plan to market his family's Janesville-area farm - and other farms around the country - as destinations for city tourists seeking affordable family fun.
Skelly's family in the last decade has converted its dairy farm into a blueprint for agri-tourism. The family sold the dairy herd in 2000, and renovated the cow barn into Skelly's Farm Market to sell fruits and vegetables, which replaced corn and soybeans. They started with a few acres of sweet corn and pumpkins, and now have 100 acres in fruits and vegetables. The remaining 100 acres are rented to another farmer who plants conventional crops.
Skelly's Farm Market, which employs up to 50 people during the growing season, features pick-your-own strawberry and pumpkin patches, eight off-farm stand locations, and two corn mazes spanning a total of 17 acres. The mazes together will attract 5,000 to 10,000 visitors in the fall, each paying $6 just to get lost in a cornfield, and find a way out.
Skelly declined to say how much money the family clears from its corn mazes.
"It's gotta be more profitable than just growing corn in a field, or a farmer wouldn't cut down corn," he said. The corn surrounding the maze design still can be harvested.
Skelly's two corn mazes will be open from around Labor Day through Halloween. A family-friendly maze depicting three bears roasting marshmallows over a campfire is composed of two miles of paths. The Impossible Maze is 3.5 miles of paths, though most people only walk half the paths unless they get really lost, or refuse the map with checkpoints, Skelly said.
This will be the first year the Impossible Maze is open 13 nights in October. It won't be haunted, "but it's a lot harder at night with a flashlight," Skelly said.
Selling vegetables and corn mazes began as a college fund for Skelly and his two siblings. Now Skelly's Farm Market supports Scott, his parents and an older brother - though Skelly is quick to say they aren't getting rich because of labor costs and insurance.
The military-grade laptop that guides the maze-cutting is designed to withstand rain, dirt, and being dropped or bounced. The GPS system, similar to systems for farm tractors, is accurate to within six inches, Skelly said. He invested $15,000 to $20,000 in equipment.
Skelly designs mazes using Photoshop computer software. The mazes are cut when the corn is knee-high so the mower can get through it, he said.
He has 20 clients this summer in Wisconsin, Illinois, Ohio, Michigan, Iowa, Minnesota, Colorado and Maryland. He's carving a replica of the Mayflower in a cornfield near Baltimore.
"We're putting mazes in some places where corn normally doesn't grow," Skelly said.
To cut a maze, Skelly keeps the crosshairs on his computer screen set on the path he's cutting in the design. "It's basically keeping your dot on the line, like playing a video game," he said.
Skelly first tested the GPS system on a maze in 2006.
Prior to that, he used "the grid method," mapping out designs on graph paper, and later, a computer. "I was really limited by the grid method," he said, "because I had to count everything manually."
Corn for a maze is planted in a grid pattern instead of in rows.
Skelly launched Corn Mazes America on the Web in December 2003, during winter break of his sophomore year in high school. His website started as a listing of corn mazes around the country - at the time, 50 to 100.
Then he began receiving e-mails from farmers, asking how they could make their own corn mazes. He wrote and self-published the book: "Corn Mazes: Is There a Pot of Gold in Your Cornfield?" He later self-published a second book about agri-tourism. Both are available exclusively at his corn maze website.
Skelly started offering corn maze designing and cutting services in 2004. It costs a couple thousand dollars for him to design and cut a maze, he said, though cost depends on intricacy.
Skelly's first gig was to carve the faces of John Kerry and George W. Bush in a Lake Mills cornfield during the 2004 presidential campaign, the summer after his sophomore year in high school. He has since designed corn mazes from California to China, and estimates more than 1,000 corn mazes now span the United States.
A December graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Platteville with a bachelor's degree in agribusiness, Skelly said he's not sure what the future holds.
He enjoys being part of his family's business, and cutting corn mazes in the summer. But corn mazes likely aren't a long-term career.
"Everything hurts at the end of the day," Skelly said. "It works for me now, but I can't imagine doing it for another 30 years. It's very physically demanding, concentrating on a computer while bouncing around a field in the sun and dust."