MERIDIAN — Farming has always been a part of Jim Lowe’s life. He grew up on a farm in Montana and moved to Idaho, continuing that legacy with his wife, Hillary Lowe.
“Less and less of our population is engaged in agriculture,” Jim Lowe said. “For us, there is a loyal connection to the farm, a basic understanding. We play a role in educating (the public) and keeping that alive.”
Jim and Hillary Lowe own The Farmstead Corn Maze & Pumpkin Festival, a favorite fall tradition in Meridian off Interstate 84 and Eagle Road.
Every year on a fall day, The Farmstead opens its doors revealing the freshly cut corn maze, food stands, inflated dragon, bee-themed zip line and other attractions. This year, the festival runs from Sept. 21 to Nov. 3. The maze’s theme this year is Famous Potatoes, featuring Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head.
The Farmstead is a unique example of agritourism, an agriculturally based operation or activity that brings visitors to a farm or ranch.
“The thing about agritourism is it is a kind of creative twist to make things work,” Jim Lowe said.
When families come in to The Farmstead, the festival gives them a taste of picking a pumpkin from the vine or seeing corn before it is harvested for cattle feed.
The festival recently added a “pollination station” were participants can put a dab of honey on their finger and watch as a bee comes to eat the honey.
“The bee doesn’t want to sting you,” Jim Lowe said, ”she’s just looking for honey.”
He said the idea surfaced one day at the festival when visitors were trying to swat away bees. The new exhibit serves to inform younger visitors about the important role bees play in the environment.
“We feel like there is a great opportunity to educate,” Jim Lowe said. “Education is always motivated by fun.”
The Farmstead was the first corn maze in Idaho, opening in 1997. At the time, the attraction was called MAiZE — a play on “maze” and “maize,” the spanish word for corn.
“When this all started, that was a perfect name,” Jim Lowe said.
MAiZE was just a corn maze, without all the other features that The Farmstead offers.
He said people thought he was crazy to cut pathways in a corn field and think people would “actually come choose to get lost, much less pay money to get lost in a corn maze.”
“It was this harebrained idea to begin with, and it’s grown into what it is now,” he said.
When the MAiZE started in the 1990s, the idea was “pure novelty.”
The first major corn maze was created in Pennsylvania in 1992, Jim Lowe said. It was the “brainchild” of a Broadway producer who was flying cross-country and looking down at all this patchwork of fields and thought that would be a really cool piece of art.
Jim and Hillary Lowe farm about 400 acres in the Meridian-Kuna area as well as run The Farmstead.
The couple grows corn and wheat on the land they partly own, partly rent. Running The Farmstead has allowed them to stay afloat while farming at a smaller scale, Jim Lowe said.
“It is an important part of our livelihood,” he said. “If we didn’t have the agritourism, we’d need to have some other scale of farming. In ag, you have to be big or diversify.”
Space for farming
In July, Idaho Central Credit Union bought 50 acres that for years have been home to The Farmstead Corn Maze and Pumpkin Festival in Meridian.
The credit union plans to build a regional mortgage and call center on the lot, spokeswoman Laura Smith said.
Jim Lowe said he still doesn’t know if they’ll be moving The Farmstead next year or keeping the iconic location for another year.
“Sometimes timelines take a bit to play out,” he said.
Farming has become more difficult as the southern Meridian and Kuna areas have become more populated, Lowe said.
He said they have been more strategic about picking the time of day they move equipment and hope residents are patient on the roads.
Even as more residents move in, he said, The Farmstead is always going to be close by in the area on the land the Lowes’ own or rent.
However, finding farmland to rent might become a problem for the couple as more land is used for development.
Since 2000, the amount of agricultural land in Ada County has dropped from roughly 220,000 acres to 182,000 acres, according to Kristi Furman, Ada County spokeswoman.
Lowe said having the ability to rent ground is a blessing, because the couple doesn’t have to make the capital investment in the land but can still get the crop yields from it.
Laura Johnson, Idaho Department of Agriculture marketing bureau chief, said a lot of the new arrivals to the Treasure Valley want to buy local and know where their produce is coming from. She said there are more “consumers in the pool,” and agritourism provides an opportunity for people to take their family to a farm.
But agritourism isn’t necessarily the answer for struggling farmers, she said.
“I don’t think adding an agritourism piece will be the savior,” Johnson said. “They’re not going to get rich over it. It will supplement income.”
At the end of the yearlong process of preparing for Farmstead, Jim Lowe said agritourism is all about providing that opportunity to connect community with agriculture.
“When all these pieces come together on a fall day, that’s the greatest rewards,” he said.