TRAVERSE CITY -- From the air, Jacob's Corn Maze would be hard to miss: a giant maze puzzle with a barnyard theme, spread out over 10 acres.
Located on a centennial farm 31/2 miles west of Traverse City, the maze was expected to open Saturday for the fall and just may be the largest of its kind in northern Michigan. It's the brainchild of fourth-generation Traverse City native Mike Witkop, who grew up on the one-time dairy farm, and his wife Laverna, who milked cows after school on her own family's farm near Interlochen.
Named after Witkop's great-grandfather, who acquired the farm in 1892, the maze is actually three unconnected mazes that form the shapes of a barn, a spotted cow and the name "Jacob's." Together they contain more than 41/2 miles of trails.
"It's very detailed," said Witkop, who bought the farm across from Gallagher's Farm Market from his mother in 1994. "I would say it would be 45 minutes to an hour to do both mazes" -- not counting the shortest one designed especially for children.
The maze is located on a parcel of land owned by the Witkops but planted and harvested by a neighboring farmer. It was designed and cut by MazePlay, an Idaho company that has built between 500 and 1,000 mazes across the U.S. and Canada. Designs range from traditional fall scenes to alien abduction, pirate ship and jungle themes.
Designed with computer-aided drafting or "CAD" software, the maze was cut when the densely planted corn was about six inches tall using a small tractor pulling a garden tiller, and a global positioning system, said MazePlay owner Shawn Stolworthy. Now the maze "walls" are about 7 or 8 feet high, providing an added challenge.
"Over the past week I've walked every square inch," said Steve Fouch, who helped select the maze design and pull weeds in preparation for its opening. "You're not just going to walk in there and walk back out. You're going to have to keep track of where you are." The maze also was tested by fellow members of Faith Reformed Church, Laverna Witkop said.
Visitors will get help with navigation from a map and can track their progress by punching a card at periodic checkpoints. They can also use the farm's silo, which can be seen overhead, for orientation, Witkop said.
For those who are more than a little directionally challenged, the maze will be staffed, Fouch added.
"It's going to be harvested in November, so they'll find any bodies then," he joked.
The maze and a nearby half-acre field of "freaky" pumpkins -- specialty pumpkins with bumpy skin that lends the squash a spooky appearance when carved -- are the first projects of Jacob's Farm Enterprises. The farm's business entity is owned by the Wiktops, Fouch -- Benzie County Extension Director -- and his wife, Lisa.
The fall projects are an initial step toward agricultural tourism, which provides educational and entertainment opportunities for farm visitors and helps preserve farms from development, said Witkop, a community banker. Eventually they could lead to other agricultural experiences at the farm, like group picnics, u-pick crops, cider or grist mills, or a fishing pond.
"We'd like to keep the farm in the family but you have to figure out an income flow," he said.
The first commercially successful corn maze was created in 1992, said Stolworthy, a Brigham Young University agriculture graduate who designed his first maze in 1998. How successful a maze is depends on it's owner's business skills and location, he added.
"I've had them anywhere from break-even to several hundred thousands of dollars a season," he said. "It's like any other business. There are some that are great, and some that are no so great."
Witkop said his maze cost $4,000 to design but that its theme will change every year. Eventually he hopes to attract sponsors to underwrite its cost.
The maze is open through Nov. 1. Hours are 5-9 p.m. Fridays, 1-9 p.m. Saturdays, 1-7 p.m. Sundays, and midweek -- for groups of 20 or more -- by appointment. Admission is $8 for adults and $5 for children 3 to 11.
For more information, including group prices, rules and guidelines, visit www.jacobs-corn-maze.com.