One of the first things I had to do upon arriving at the farm is weed-whack the corn maze. A corn maze is, as many of you know, a cornfield that has been cut either by machine or by chemical into a path, sometimes in a pattern, that tourists run around in for the enjoyment of getting lost for several minutes and then haphazardly finding a way out. In England, there are many such mazes, there called, amusingly, maize mazes, which surely spawn from the old tradition of English garden mazes, usually cut from boxwood or other hedges. They are popular and they are fun. Many historic estates in England still maintain their old mazes or recreate new ones to add an element of enjoyment that is in-line with the history of the specific place. A corn maze, however economical and enjoyable, is fundamentally out of line on a meat-production farm in North Carolina. Our farm has a corn maze primarily to supplement the farm's income. Financially, a corn maze makes sense. If you have one, the tourist will come, they will spend their money. What could possibly be at all wrong? The farmer makes additional income and the tourist has a good time and a happy memory of a farm and a quaintly pleasing impression of rural life. But it is just that that, an impression, that troubles me. In the case of our farm, and I'm sure many others, the impression the tourist leaves with is a false one. We do not raise corn for food, nor ethanol, nor feed, nor research. Corn is not what we do. Our farm uses the land to raise food. We are, as the former head of the Warren Wilson College Farm, John Pilson once told Ross, grass farmers. We take an abundant resource that is inedible to us, grass, let animals who can digest its nutrients eat it, and harvest that nutrition through the meat of that animal. Little of the land that we are on is suitable for raising grains and vegetables, so we raise the food that the land we are on can easily support. Yet, the many tourists who visit our farm have no idea that this is at all what we actually do. Many don't even realise we raise animals for food at all. By and large, they come for the corn maze, maybe a few pumpkins, and leave without noticing the freezers of food in the store. The corn maze presents a lie for the sake of a good time and increased income.
A caveat to this argument, though, is that farmers need that increased income. Several times, I have discussed the problem farmers face of making adequate income. Jamie attests, and I think rightly so, that of the vast majority of the interest and the money being made on the local food movement is going to the image of the movement. People buy from Whole Foods and they feel like they've done their part. Restaurants will have three or four local food items on their menus and they attract those concerned for food ethics. Shops open to sell nothing but organic sheets spun from cotton grown in Egypt and woven in Thailand and their patrons feel like they've made a contribution to something ethical. All the while government regulations and big corporate farms try to jump on the bandwagon diluting the language of ethical eating so that "organic" is equivalent to "all-natural" and either means a food as nutritious and untarnished as "grass-finished". As a result, farmers still see very little of the billions of dollars made by Whole Foods and Earth Fare. It's not enough, and neither is a corn maze.
A farm that successfully raises, harvests, and sells its harvest should not ever feel that in order to be economically successful it must go out of its way in terms of skills, labour, and resources for something that ultimately amounts to a waste of time and land for the sake of a tourist who will never buy even one of our steaks, nor encourage others towards ethical farming and eating; who, when the time comes to decide whether to develop or preserve that farm land, will merely shake their heads and say, well, I'm sorry to see the corn maze go, I guess we'll have to find another one somewhere else.
And therein lies the crux of the problem. There is nothing local about a tourist. For a tourist, there is little incentive to look deeper than the initial good time had. Pleasure is just pleasure unless it has meaning attached to it. Carlo Petrini calls it taste: the marriage of pleasure with meaning. Though the smiles of a tourist have value and play their part in a persons life, there are better ways of getting those smiles and good feelings that will benefit a place an more levels than the fiscal and a person on more levels than amusement. I suggest on farm tours where people might learn the fun and amazement of how cows come when called, workshops on cooking with the food grown on the farm, or even prepared picnics for sale with farm food that can be enjoyed on the grounds, farm volunteer days where kids can come and enjoy shovelling manure, making bouquets for the farm store to sell, helping to press apple cider, or counting piglets, where adults can help repair structures and make improvements. By all means, make money: charge for the experience. The point is to serve the farm and get people to cultivate an authentic experience and an authentic relationship with the land that works to get them to appreciate the farm for what it is rather than what it isn't. And by all means, if you grow corn, have a corn maze. The point is to work towards the cultivation of a recurring relationship to the idea of the farm and to the idea of food, if not ours specifically, the importance of those that serve the tourist locally. It is our job, as much as it is our job to raise meat, to help people, to help tourists to see at one individual farm how the farms local to them also serve them and their community. Then, maybe, farmers will be able to make enough money that they can stop doing things that aren't their jobs.