Masaryktown – Ted Kessel walked into the four-acre cornfield with a drawing of a butterfly-shaped maze and a T-shaped tool of PVC pipe he called "Mr. T."
Kessel, who owns Sweetfields Farm with his wife Lisa, spent the next 36 hours wielding Mr. T against nature, carving a life-sized labyrinth through the stalks of corn. Then came the moment of truth: Kessel went up in an airplane to see his creation from the sky.
"I left off part of the ‘t' (in Sweetfields Farm)," Kessel recalled with a smile. "We had to re-plant and hope for the best. I'm starting to get the hang of it."
Kessel has perfected the art of the crop maze since that fall 2008 initiation. Now he does two a year: a corn field in the fall, a sunflower field in the spring, each time with a different design. A cow. A goat. A pumpkin.
The mazes have become a staple of the seasonal festivals that bring thousands of visitors to the organic farm off U.S. 41, just north of the Hernando-Pasco county line.
People can sample freshly made lemonade and apple cider, climb hay bales, compete in the bean-bag toss and potato sack races, and visit with the goats, pigs and Rosie Moo Moo the cow. Visitors can also buy farm-fresh squash, zucchini, cucumbers, green beans and pinkeye peas.
But everyone comes for the maze.
Transforming the field into a maze is no easy task, and Kessel admits he sometimes gets turned around in there. The stalks are seven, eight, nine feet tall and cover up to five acres. Some maze masters swear by herbicides, rototillers and mowers in their labyrinth-making arsenal. But the Kessels are sworn to secrecy on their techniques at Sweetfields Farm.
"Mr. T still makes an appearance every now and then. It's a trade secret," Lisa Kessel said. "We do get some help from Batman. Oh, and the aliens have always been there for us."
The Kessels offer some help to people navigating the maze. Visitors receive a list of farm-based trivia questions that correspond to numbered checkpoints inside the labyrinth. One answer takes you left. The other right. And when you hit a dead end, you discover you didn't know as much about goats as you thought.
Sweetfields Farm staff members patrol the maze to ensure that this family-friendly experience remains, well, friendly. Some frustrated maze visitors have tried to create their own paths.
The Kessels have no plans to leave the maze business anytime soon. The couple started the farm in 2008, buying an oak-shaded tract used for hay and horses and laying the irrigation and electricity themselves.
Growing fresh, healthy food was as important to them as creating a welcoming place for families to play and learn. The Kessels rely on their own extended family and an ever-growing group of friends to throw their farming celebrations twice a year. They also hold "u-pick" events where visitors can pluck their own produce.
"We are so excited to be a part of family traditions," Lisa Kessel said. "We host field trips where kids can learn about crops and seed production."
The Kessels try to get the most out of every part of their farm, even selling some of their watermelons to a nearby winery that creates watermelon wine. The additional income from all their ventures has helped afford their family a better lifestyle.
"Farmers have been doing (mazes) for years," Lisa Kessel said. "You have to do it in order to compensate for crop issues."
The Kessels said they work around the clock in preparation for the fall and spring celebrations.
"Farming is not easy at all," Lisa Kessel said. "There's always something new that's going to jump up and bite you."
The couple stands at the entrance of their farm, near the grassy lot filled with cars, as hundreds of visitors arrive for the first or 10th time. The hours of toil and sweat fade and the Kessels' own meandering journey comes into focus.
"This is why we do this. We are making memories," said Ted Kessel. "We love the people who have been with us since the beginning. That success is more rewarding than the financial success."
If You Go
17250 Benes Roush Road
Masaryktown, Fl 34604
Wayne Grumet was a journalist for 10 years, writing columns, news and sports. He lives in Hudson and has been teaching high school English and Journalism for eight years.