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Downturn not hurting corn mazes, pick-your-own orchards

Monday, September 14, 2009 | 5:28 p.m. CDT; updated 4:40 p.m. CDT, Thursday, October 8, 2009

NEW YORK — Pick-your-own orchards are expected to have a strong fall season, thanks to consumers staying closer to home for leisure activities and an increased interest in local food and lower prices.

“Because of the whole staycation-daycation thing, a lot of our members are saying business has been good,” said Kathy McKay, spokeswoman for the North American Farmers’ Direct Marketing Association. “People are looking for things to do near home instead of getting on a plane.”

“We have not heard of any apple U-picks going out of business because of lack of business,” U.S. Apple Association spokesman Todd Hultquist said.

John Slemmer, who lists pick-your-own farms on a Web site called PickYourOwn.org, estimates that there are about 10,000 such places altogether, including not just orchards but farms that grow all types of produce throughout the year.

Slemmer said that for every farm that closes because the land was sold or the owner passed away, he’s getting 10 new listings for farms inviting the public in.

“It’s growing no matter how you look at it,” he said. “People are looking at cheaper sources of food, and without the middleman, you get a better price. With pick-your-own farms, you also remove the labor component. There are health issues, and there’s also an entertainment and educational component. People who are so far removed from seeing farms in their daily lives say, ‘I want to see where my food comes from.’”

Another big draw for families: corn mazes. The Corn Maze Directory lists more than 600 mazes, with some in every state except Alaska and Hawaii atcornmazedir.com. Some mazes are so long and complex that they have spotters or corn cops on platforms above the maze to direct lost visitors.

The Liberty Corn Maze near Liberty, Mo., consists of five mazes — including two that are less than a mile and one that’s nearly 4 miles long. For the dedicated maze walker, Liberty offers a total of 9.3 miles of corn rows to navigate; details are available at libertycornmaze.com.

Another way to enjoy the season’s colors is by visiting a local botanical garden, where the reds and golds of autumn can be just as spectacular as the pinks and purples of spring.

Several gardens around the country are embracing a tradition imported from Japan that elevates the ordinary chrysanthemum to an object worthy of adulation: kiku matsuri, or chrysanthemum festivals.

At Bellingrath Gardens in Theodore, Ala., near Mobile, cascading chrysanthemums are cultivated for months before being put on display in November, when they spill from balconies and bridges in stunning 4-foot-long swaths of brilliant reds and yellows.

Bellingrath has been growing cascading mums since 1963, but this year its annual festival will include a special two-day program of Japanese culture. The festival takes place Nov. 1-22, and the Japanese-themed events, including demonstrations and displays of bonsai, ikebana, origami, brush painting and other arts and traditions, are scheduled for Nov. 6-7.

“It’s a really fun way to talk about mums and the culture of Japan,” said Bellingrath spokeswoman Jessica Barrick. Details are available at bellingrath.org.


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