The corn maze at Vesperman Farms came about because of the sesquicentennial.
The very first corn maze that Kyle is aware of was in East Central Pennsylvania back in 1993. Five years later, in 1998, corn mazes came to Wisconsin in the form of Wisconsin. For the state's 150-year celebration, a farm in Janesville offered a maze in the shape of our cheesehead state. There was no pumpkin patch or activities or food accompanying this first maze, but the novelty of it attracted 50,000 people.
And this got Kyle thinking. At that time, he was selling pumpkins in Lancaster, but was already having ideas to bring a bigger version of his hobby 4H project back to the farm.
A New Idea Crops Up
Back in the 90's and early 2000's, farms like ours were very basic. They had pumpkin patches - and sometimes wagon rides to them - where you could buy pumpkins. Orchards sold apples. And maybe there were some jams and jellies and even some apple cider to purchase while you were there. At that time, "farm tourism" was a wholesomely new concept and people in the biz were just beginning to form ideas for activities, food options, and big attractions like corn mazes.
So in 2002, with the mutterings of this farm tourism concept developing, Kyle visited a couple of farms to look into the idea of moving his pumpkins back to the farm. He started to really like the idea of a "farm destination," so we opened for our first season on the farm that fall. The first year was just "take a ride to the pumpkin patch" and little else, but the plans for the life-sized twists and turns in the corn maze were in place for the next year.
Mazed and Confused
Now, I didn't know this, but even 20 years ago there were companies that designed corn mazes. And when Kyle decided to forge ahead with the maze idea, he really swung for the fences. He didn't hire just any maze designer - he hired the guy who designed the very first corn maze, a man who has set multiple Guinness world records and is world-renowned for his craft, England-based designer Adrian Fisher.
Keep in mind that Kyle was 20 years old, a junior in college at this point, just starting out his business, trying to keep up with classes and life. I mean, he's basically still a kid. And he calls a world-renowned designer to help a tiny up-start farm in Southwest Wisconsin add a maze.
So one day Kyle was in class and his phone rang. And he could tell it was a call from Europe but he couldn't answer - he was in class. He checked the voicemail after and it was Adrian Fisher, telling him that he'd love to do a corn maze for the farm. And Kyle called him back and they started work.
I asked, "Kyle, how did you get the nerve to call this guy up and negotiate terms and work with designers and do all these very adult things when you were still at the point where you wouldn't even answer your phone for a big business opportunity while you were in class!?" And he responded with great simplicity - for this is Kyle after all - "Anything worth doing is never simple. I wanted people to really be wowed by the maze."
After phone calls and emails over the ocean, the company delivered their design: a giant Jack-o-Lantern. Then Kyle, his parents, and his friend Matt spent four days and about 70 hours on the 5-acre plot cutting out the pathways, taking this concept design....
...to this backbreaking labor....
...and finally to this reality.
A Field of Ears
For the first five years, Fisher and his company designed the corn maze at the farm. And for those first five years, Kyle and his friends cut out the rows to bring it to life. After Fisher stopped working in the U.S., Kyle began working with the MAiZE company out of Utah and hired another company (again, I did not know companies like this existed) that specializes in cutting maze designs to shape the rows.
In the second or third year, Kyle also began designing and cutting a mini maze for kiddos and school groups. This process is a little less exact than the main event, but no less fun!
Come Ear Often?
It takes most people an hour or two to navigate the winding rows of the corn maze at Vesperman Farms. But for those involved in bringing this unique experience to the public, it's a year-long effort of creativity, watching the weather, agricultural know-how, and, yeah, a lot of passion.
The maze has taken a variety of forms in the last 15 years. From the first Jack-o-Lantern, it's been a crop circle, a big catfish, a steamboat, a flag and eagle, farm sceneries, and a scarecrow. Every year has brought different challenges and experiences to both the people responsible for the maze and for the people enjoying the fruits of this particular harvest.
For almost everyone, the maze fulfills a need for odd diversions or for simpler pleasures. Ann Dolan, a retired teacher who guides our school groups through the mini maze, believes that a corn maze represents a challenge and a joy to people who participate. "The kids love to make decisions and problem solve. They feel so accomplished when they make it through to the end," she says.
The maze - as with everything we do - is also about spending time on the farm. Navigating through the maze isn't just a walk through the cornfield. It's about sharing ideas and thoughts with your companions; about going down the wrong path and laughing about it; and it's about your relationships, with each other, with us, and with the farm. To us, the maze is really just another way people can enjoy life on the farm.
This year's corn maze is already cut and shaping up for you fall goers, and as always, we're counting the days until we open it up for the public. This year we'll send you off into the maze with some well wishes from Ann, who always tells her school group kids before they enter:
We enjoyed getting to know you guys. And we really want you to know that. You know...in case we never see you again.
He's been doing this since high school, been living here all his life, so Kyle has a lot of memories of life at the farm. Today he shared with me some of his favorites.
This was in 1999, one of the first years Kyle sold pumpkins at his grandparent's house in Lancaster. Check out high-schooler Kyle unloading pumpkins! This first memory is really where it all began.
The first news article, published in the Herald Independent, written about the farm.
These were taken in 2013 on some of the busier days of the fall season. Kyle remembers being amazed at the crowds on these days, and to this day he is humbled by and takes inspiration from the people who come to support him and enjoy the farm experiences he's spent his life building.
Not many people can say they've canoed their farmground, but Kyle can. In the spring of 2014, a warm day and a frozen culvert created a huge pond near the animal barn. Kyle - being Kyle - dropped in his canoe and took a casual row around the land.
Most people haul their big pumpkins in trucks, but these four college students loaded theirs up in a car and then snuggled in around it to take it home. Look how happy she is (peep the top right corner)!
A great snap from a visitor to the farm. This is what fall season is all about.
One of Kyle's favorite photos from the farm has a lot of meaning. Not only is that goat just perfect, but these guys are both college friends who helped Kyle when fall season had just begun. Now they come back with their families to enjoy the fall season.
The first day breaking ground on the red barn in June 2015.
First fall season in the barn before we finished any of the interior. It looks so different now!
The first shipment of apple cider and apples for our 2016 fall season. In 2012 when Kyle started making donuts and selling cider, he would get maybe 30 gallons per order, which would get him through a couple weekends. This shipment was about 600 apples and just under 400 gallons of cider - and this is just one of many throughout the fall season today!
Our first engagement on the farm! All masterminded by the groom-to-be, who contacted Kyle to set up what was a complete surprise for his future bride!
Christmas on the farm in December 2016. This was an amazing night.
After the red barn was built, Kyle began assembling a little community of sorts on the farm. This day they moved what is now our Windmill Shed from a neighboring farm up to our ceremony site. This little shed serves many purposes on the farm, from a backdrop for wedding ceremonies to a great hang-out spot for fall season birthday groups.
This was in 2017 when Bruce grew a bunch of giant pumpkins. This great photo of Farmer Bruce made him Famous Farmer Bruce, as three news channels picked up the story of his hard work and the photo and story ran throughout the tri-state area.
There are a few things that I love about this place. First, I work with amazing people, both employees and clients, who make my days at the farm wonderful. Second, I get to bring my dog (and always give her a bath after our visit). And third, there is always something new to do. Kyle just can't help himself - he always needs a project.
Which brings me to the reason I'm blogging: We're now offering catering! To learn more about what it is we're doing here, I did a little Q & A with the boss. Check out his responses and our new catering menu below!
Q: What kind of events are you catering?
A: We're doing everything from business meetings, family/class reunions, parties, and company picnics to funerals and wakes to weddings.
Q: How long have you been in the food business?
A: About 10 years. Kyle started with a coffee shop in Lancaster and then moved to the farm, offering food during fall season. We're in our third summer of catering weddings and events on the farm. We serve parties of 20 people up to 300!
Q: What kind of food options do you have?
A: We have appetizers, pizza, and a variety of buffet options. Our most popular menu is our slow-smoked buffet. Texan barbecue-style pulled pork, brisket, and sausage with two sides - it's a hearty and delicious meal! You can check out all our menu options by clicking on the document below.
Q: What does your service look like?
A: We do drop-off service or staff attendants - depending on the type of your event and the size of your crowd. You can also elect to pick up. We have service options for all!
Q: How do I get more information/get in touch?
A: Check out our website or send Morgan an email at email@example.com.
There's a lot that happens behind the scenes at Vesperman Farms.
Fifteen years ago, the faces behind the farm numbered three: Bruce, Judy, and Kyle. During fall season, Bruce drove the tractor out to the pumpkin patch, Judy ran the ticket/retail counter, and Kyle bounced around as general handyman and do-anything guy. During those early years, the crowds were smaller, things ran a bit slower, and fall season had a very different feel than it does today.
It wasn't until 2007, about four years after fall season started, that the farm added its first non-family staff, whom Kyle calls their first "real" employee. A few years later when the farm hit its 10-year anniversary, Kyle added made-to-order food to the fall season experience, and the crowds - and the staff - got bigger. And just a few years ago with the construction of the new barn, the farm started operating year-round as an events venue.
Today the farm has about 60 fall season staff and 10 year-round employees. And our staff is amazing. They are all talented, hard-working, and fun people, and many of them work weekends and nights on top of school, other jobs, and family commitments. They care a lot about our customers and do everything in their power to make sure everyone a great day at the farm.
At this farm, we do a lot of what people call cross training. The staff here wears multiple hats on a daily basis: they work weddings and events; bake and deliver donuts and kettle corn for our fundraising program; drive folks out to the pumpkin patch, help plant strawberries and pumpkins; and work on various construction projects, like re-siding and painting old buildings and putting up windmills. This staff is always up for anything!
We ask a lot of our employees some days, especially when we have multiple events in the barn on one weekend. In just a couple of hours, a group of our staff transitioned the space from a ceremony to dining seating for our Pig Gig - check out the process below!
Although many of our last names aren't Vesperman, we are all a part of the Vesperman Farms family, and these friendly faces make the farm a fantastic place to work and enjoy.
This is a delicious snack that (shh...) I've even eaten for breakfast because it's almost like a scone and I'm a grown-up and can do what I want. :)
For the shortcake
2 Egg Yolks (hard boiled)
1⅓ c Flour
1 tsp Baking Powder
1¼ c Kosher Salt
3 Tbs Granulated Sugar
6 Tbs Butter (chilled)
⅔ c Heavy Cream
2 Tbs Sanding Sugar or Granulated Sugar (for sprinkling)
For the filling
1½ lbs Fresh Strawberries
¼ c Granulated Sugar
1 tsp Lemon Zest
1 pinch Kosher Salt
2 tsp Lemon Juice (divided)
1 c Heavy Cream
2 Tbs Powdered Sugar
For the shortcake
Preheat the oven to 300° (on low).
Combine the egg yolks, flour, baking powder, salt, and sugar in food processor and pulse until combined. Pulse in small chunks of the chilled butter until butter pieces are about pea-sized and incorporated throughout.
Add the cream and pulse 2 or 3 times to incorporate.
Remove dough from food processor and gently fold dough together to combine and mix in any dry spots. Do not over knead.
Using a ¼ scoop make 6 balls and place on parchment lined baking sheet. Don't flatten the dough.
Chill in the fridge until cold (about 20-25 minutes).
Take shortcakes out of fridge and brush with cream. Sprinkle sugar on top.
Bake about 20-28 minutes until golden and sides are firm to the touch. Cool before serving.
For the filling
Toss strawberries, sugar, lemon zest, and salt together in a medium bowl.
Put half of strawberries in sauce pan and add 1 tablespoon of water. Simmer over low heat until berries start to break down and become jammy and liquid is syrupy (about 12-18 minutes).
Cool. Once mixture is cool, add 1 teaspoon of lemon juice. Add 1 teaspoon of lemon juice to the berries still left in the bowl.
Combine heavy cream, powdered sugar, and pinch of salt in blender. Beat cream until soft peaks form.
Cut shortcakes in half. Add cooked strawberries, then raw strawberries, then the whipped cream to the bottom layer of cake. Top off with top layer of cake.
This sweet and simple pie is great for a dinner dessert, a family picnic, or (and we promise we won't tell) a delicious snack just 'cause.
For the crust
1 ½ c Flour
½ tsp Salt
2 Tbs Sugar
½ c Oil
2 Tbs Milk
For the filling
1 lb Fresh Strawberries (sliced)
1 c Sugar
3 Tbs Cornstarch
1 c Water
3 Tbs Strawberry Jell-O
2 Tbs Corn Syrup
For the crust
Combine all ingredients into a mixing bowl. Pat mixture into the bottom of a pie pan to form the crust. Bake at 350° until crust is golden brown. Cool before adding filling.
For the filling
Layer berries in the pie crust until full (about 1 lb).
In a small saucepan over medium heat, combine sugar and cornstarch into a small saucepan. Stir to combine. Add water and simmer until liquid begins to thicken. Add the Jello-O and corn syrup. Cook for a few minutes more until sauce is fully combined and thickened.
Remove from heat and pour mixture over berries. Cool the pie in fridge until fully chilled and thickened.
AND THE BEST STEP....Enjoy!
With the strawberry season now in full swing, we thought we'd share some of our frequently asked questions about picking berries.
When is the best time to pick?
Early in the morning when the berries are still cool and the sun hasn't had time to soften them or early evening when the sun is setting. Our hours reflect the best picking times: 7 a.m. - noon and 4 p.m. - 8 p.m. daily!
How long is the season?
It varies year-to-year, but usually 2-3 weeks around June. A lot of depends on how much heat and rain we get. We keep our website and Facebook page as up to date as possible on current patch conditions.
Why aren't you open in the middle of the day?
It's usually too hot and people don't want to pick in the heat. Also, the heat softens the berries, so they don't hold up in the containers as well as when they are cooler in the early and late day.
How can I tell which berries are ripe?
A fully ripe berry is all red, no green flesh and no white tip. Ripe berries are firm, not soft or mushy, and have a bright, shiny red color.
How do I pick berries?
The best way to hunt for the nicest berries are to get down and dirty. Use both hands, one to hold the branches and the other to pick the berries. Look under the leaves for the berries - some of the best ones are hiding right under your nose. When picking, keep the stems and hulls on the fruit. It helps keep the berries fresh longer.
What are the best picking practices for good berries?
Handle the fruits gently. Place them gently into the buckets - don't throw or toss them in. Try not to pile the berries too high in the basket or bucket as the bottom berries might be crushed. Take as many buckets as you'd like so you don't have to fill them too full. Don't squeeze the berries and handle them too much - this can cause bruising.
What should I look for when buying pre-picked berries?
Look for fragrant, red, and shiny berries that have a uniform color throughout. The berries should be firm and plump. If any leaves, stem, or hull are attached, these should be fresh and green (not browning or wilted). Stains on the container indicate overripe fruit. And it's always a good idea to buy berries by weight!
What are the best techniques for berry care?
Protect berries from the sun and heat as best you can. When home, sort through your berries and remove any overripe or molding berries. Refrigerate at 32°–40°F in loosely covered containers. Don't wash any berries until you are ready to eat or use them. Strawberries generally keep for 2 to 3 days in the fridge.
How should I freeze berries?
Wash the strawberries and remove any stems or leaves. Pat them dry with paper towels. If freezing individually (for use in smoothies, for example), you can either leave them whole or quarter them. Freeze them individually on cookie sheets and transfer to a freezer-safe container or plastic bag when frozen.
For a sweet treat to top cakes or swirl into yogurt or ice cream: Puree the berries in a blender or food processor. Add 1/2 to 3/4 cup sugar per quart of berries; gently stir until sugar dissolves. Spoon into freezer-safe containers, leaving 1/2-inch headspace. Freeze up to 12 months.
What are your tips for canning?
We follow the Bell Canning Company's advice. Follow the link below for canning information: Ball Canning Company
Any questions? Drop them in the comments. Happy pickin' y'all!
"The pumpkin is a womb" is probably the most poetic thing I've ever heard Kyle say. But I guess after 20+ years of growing, there's a lot of love between the pumpkin and this pumpkin farmer.
Today the crew is finishing planting the 7-acre pumpkin patch at the farm. We plant a few varieties, from small cooking pumpkins to bigger ones for carving. In the next week or so, the pumpkins will start to pop out of the ground, and in 95-115 days, they will be fully grown, ready for fall.
Planting this year has taken about three days. The rain, including the spectacular cloudburst on Friday night, delayed us a few times. But the hot weather the last two days made for a great day of planting today!
To plant the pumpkins, Kyle uses a modified corn planter - an old Case plate planter - which seats two people, each in front of a seed hopper. These helpers drop seeds into into the hopper, which disperses the seed into the furrows. It's a hot, slow job, but it used to be a lot more painstaking. Like all things here at the farm, Kyle has constantly innovated his process - today we plant more pumpkins than we ever have, but at least it's not all on our hands and knees!
When I asked Kyle about what he's learned after all these years of growing pumpkins, he said it just comes down to weather and timing. Pumpkins need a good amount of rain right after planting to establish their root structure and develop their vines, but the hot, dry heat of August is perfect for when they are setting fruit. Last year was one of the best years for pumpkins: a lot of rain in July and a hot, dry August and early September.
It was during this conversation that I learned the pumpkin itself is really just a vessel (or womb, as Kyle said, to my delight) for the pumpkin seed. The pumpkin grows the outer skin and pulp during hot weather, which in turn serve as protective covering for those seeds. The pumpkin protects its seeds until the outer portion breaks down, releasing these soon-to-be pumpkins into the ground and starting the growing process all over again.
So the next time you find a whopper in the patch, give it some credit: it's been doing a really good job. And now I have a lot of questions about which came first: the pumpkin or the seed?
Whenever I think back to Jordane and Ryan's wedding, the first word that comes to mind is family. This little family had a much larger family, and everyone was so united in their happiness and love for this couple that the whole day was nothing short of magical. At the farm, we are blessed to witness many beginnings, and this beginning was an absolutely beautiful one.
Photos by the talented Twig&Olive Photography.
One of the things I love about a "non-traditional" ceremony is that brides and grooms often choose family members to officiate their ceremonies, and this choice adds a personal and meaningful touch to these bright, happy moments. Jordane and Ryan's hilltop ceremony was an emotional one: funny, touching, sweet, and lovely.
The music for the ceremony and reception was done by family as well. I'm a sucker for a good live band, and the Kittoe Boys were not only incredible, they provided a sweet backdrop of beautiful sound for this elegant reception. And who doesn't love a man in a tuxedo shirt?!
Decoration rentals were provided by A La Crate Vintage Rentals.
This couple had a lot of love to give to each other, and their families a lot of love to give to them, and we just felt lucky to have been there to witness it all. Congratulations, Jordane and Ryan, from our family to yours.
This week, we planted 16,000 strawberry plants. It took twelve hours, seven people working in shifts, one tractor, and a lot of sunscreen to plant the new fields, which cover about two acres.
We won't see a strawberry crop off these plants this year, though. These little babies will take the next year to spread through the runners and grow into big healthy plants - they'll be ready for strawberry season 2019! This June, we'll be doing a final pick on the fields by the house, which will then be tilled under for a new crop. Kyle rotates crops every 3-4 years to give the fields a break and ensure healthier plants and soil.
The first Vesperman strawberry patch was by the white barn, located right where the duck races are now. Kyle, Judy, and Bruce planted that first field - about 5,000 plants - by hand, spending days on their hands and knees digging, planting, and watering.
"We were younger back then," Kyle says with a shrug.
Today, strawberries are planted by a Transplanter. Hitched to the back of the tractor, the Transplanter seats two people in some actually pretty comfortable chairs. While Kyle drives the tractor at slow idle speed, the planters grab plants from two large compartments and feed them into a wheel. Each individual plant is placed into rubber fingers. As the tractor moves, the Transplanter opens up the furrow and drops the plant in, watering it at the same time. Then the packing wheels close the furrow back up. Check out the video below for a little taste of strawberry planting!
Fun on the farm...in blog form!