Saturday, January 22, 2022

Regional farm highlights Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real as theme for seasonal Maze Craze

A metal silo-turned-ticket-booth showcases the 2021 Maze Craze design, featuring Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Reel, at Galloway Farm. (Port City Daily/Courtesy photo)

SOUTHEASTERN N.C. — “​​I did not know that I was gonna end up being so passionate about farming,” Alma Galloway said as she walked the grounds of her family’s 125-acre farm. 

Located 40 minutes west of Wilmington in Hallsboro, Galloway Farm is a fourth generational farm. It has been in her husband’s family since 1944 and, by all accounts, the heritage will continue.

“Our son just graduated from NC State Ag Institute and wants to expand on our beef cattle operation,” Alma said.

What started with tobacco crops over 75 years ago, Galloway now focuses on growing field corn for feed, soybean, and hay. They also have 180 beef cattle.

“It’s our primary commodity,” Alma said. 

Right now, the farm sources wholesale only — though the farm will sell a whole cow to anyone in the community who wants one. But the buyer would be in charge of processing it, as the farm isn’t licensed to do so — at least not yet.

“I would really like to expand on that and start to offer our grass-fed beef products to the public here on the farm,” Alma said. “I would have to get a meat handler’s license to be able to do the whole shebang —  have it in my little shop over there in a freezer, with some select cuts.”

The cows graze a few miles away from the Maze Craze, which opens to the public each fall. It helps provide another source of income for the farm: agritourism.  

Over the years, Alma has evolved the events and programs offered at Galloway beyond harvest season. She hosts holiday breakfasts and lunches with Santa, and in spring, when the fields are clear, an Easter egg drop takes place from a helicopter. 

“It literally looks like it’s raining Easter eggs and the kids run out and try to catch as many as they can with their baskets,” she described. 

Galloway also hosts tours and field trips for school children across nine counties most days of the week in fall and spring (though Covid-19 hindered spring 2020 and 2021 programming).

“It’s all part of the end goal: to show people the value of family farms and teach them where their food comes from,” Alma said.

Alma Galloway talks about the games kids can play throughout the 3-acre kids mazes at Galloway Farm. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

‘In the Tall Grass’

Annually, the Maze Craze welcomes visitors from all across the state each weekend, September through the first of November.

“We probably have 800 or 1,000 people a day come through,” Alma said.

She is the first person greeting guests at the ticket booth — a metal silo that’s been cut out to look like a country cabana of sorts. It’s surrounded by pecan trees; Alma said she will often pick up a shelled nut, crack it in her hand, and pop it in her mouth. She once did it in front of an adult-paying customer. 

“And he had no idea pecans come from trees,” Alma said. 

To be able to teach those connections in real time while also having fun is at the heart of Galloway’s Maze Craze, which started in 2011. It was meager in the beginning: a couple of kids’ games, a small maze, and a hay ride. 

“But I realized there was such a bigger opportunity out here to be able to entertain people and educate them,” she said. 

As she began learning more about the agritourism side of farming, she decided to give it her full attention. After 22 years of working as an accountant for a construction company, Alma quit her job. Her husband had begun working 25 miles away at International Paper — “we weren’t making enough income to pay the bills and so he works at dinner” — and would farm in between his shift work.

Alma joined the board of the North Carolina Agritourism Networking Association through the North Carolina Department of Agriculture. She’s also the southeastern director for agritourism. 

“[I]f anybody has a bonafide farm in the southeastern part of the state, and they’re thinking or considering of venturing into agritourism, or opening their farm to the public and welcoming visitors to their farm to show them things about farming, they’ll contact me to counsel with them and just kind of give them some guidance there,” she said.

Today, the Maze Craze represents an old-school industry with new-school technology. It offers families an augmented reality scavenger hunt that they activate on their phones. There are also rubber-duck races, hop-along bouncers, corn hole boards, tractor and barrel train rides, and plenty of places for photo ops: with the donkeys, in the sunflower field when the flowers are in full bloom at the end of summer, on the farm rides.

When the weather cools off, Alma opens a metal silo — what she calls “The Singing Bin” — and allows people to step inside and belt ‘til their heart’s content.

“It can make anyone sound good,” she said before giving it a whirl with Hank Williams’ “Your Cheatin’ Heart.” 

“Once I had a choir come through and they sounded unbelievable,” she praised.

The star feature at Galloway Farm comes in its numerous mazes. The 13-acre maze takes about an hour-and-a-half to walk through its 5 miles. The maze has 10 checkpoints users can interact with on their phones by scanning QR codes, which starts a timer and records how long it takes each “player” to get out. The times are docked on a leaderboard and at the end of the season, the winner receives an Amazon gift card.  

Practically every weekend she has to go in and “rescue” at least one person from the maze. It can be particularly interesting at nightfall, she said, as the 14-foot-tall mazes don’t close until 9 p.m. Anyone who wants a more challenging, albeit spooky experience, can walk through the dark maze, only brightened by their phone’s flashlight and maybe, if lucky, natural moonlight illuminating the path.

“One time I rescued two people who had just watched ‘In the Tall Grass’ and were [a] little freaked out,” she recalled. “Their phones died, so I was walking through calling out to find them. Needless to say, they were really happy to see me.”

Alma knows the maze like the back of her hand. Every turn, curve, even the unwanted “cut-throughs” people make when they decide to deter from the trails are embedded in her muscle memory like a natural GPS. And it changes annually with each design.

The first year she hosted Maze Craze she featured a cow to represent the farm’s cattle.

“And my then-11-year-old son said, ‘Mom, I think we need to do something other than just a cow — I think we should go bigger with this thing,’” Alma recalled.

So she had an idea to try a Larry the Cable Guy design, and went through his production company to get approval, but then his lawyers quashed it. So, at the last minute, she asked a local car dealership if it would be interested in embedding its logo on a field large enough that the design could be viewed from space.

“I said, ‘I want to create a billboard that is so huge, it has 90-foot-tall letters with your name carved into my field,” she said.

He agreed. When Alma went back to show the aerial photograph, the manager loved it — and so a new marketing campaign began for the farm.

Each year Alma approaches businesses that may be interested in sponsoring the maze. In 2021, she had an idea to feature a musical artist in the field — specifically, ones that would be heard on The Penguin 98.3 or The Dude 93.7. She reached out to Local Daily Media brands [full disclosure: the parent network of Port City Daily, 30 Off Local, The Penguin and The Dude] to sponsor the event.

“It was narrowed down to two artists: The Avett Brothers and Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real,” she said.

A fan of the Nelson clan — dad Willie included — Alma said it was a cinch to choose; she had even met Lukas Nelson in 2018 when he played a free set in Wilmington ahead of a Hurricane Florence relief fundraiser. She also followed Lukas throughout the pandemic, as he hosted livestreams and would connect and talk to his fans via social media.

Once his face and the band name was decided upon for the theme, Alma contracted a graphic designer to come up with the image for the maze, and after approving it, forwarded to Precision Mazes. The company uses the most precise GPS and advanced field-cutting technologies to illustrate the intricate designs into the fields.

“Every line that you create has to have 10 feet across between the next line,” Alma said. “And then they create little pathways going between everything. It’s quite a process.”

Alma plants crops in early summer so by August they’re tall enough to be cut through. She said the tractor operator enters the design into his computer system, punches in info from Google’s GPS, and the satellite system puts him on the path to cut.

“He told me one time he could black out the cab of his tractor and he wouldn’t have to even look out while cutting because he’s literally following the screen like a video game: drive in turn, turn left, turn right, go back.”

Once the video of the 2021 Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real maze creation went live, Lukas shared it on his social media accounts. It garnered over 30,000 views. 

“I was told they showed it at Farm Aid last month,” Alma said, referring to the annual music festival that Willie Nelson founded with John Mellencamp and Neil Young in 1985. Farm Aid keeps the focus on small family farms and communities coming together to strengthen their agricultural resources.

“It’s really tough for small family farms nowadays when you have big industry farming and corporations coming in with more equipment and more money. It just puts the little people out,” Alma said. “And so a lot of people start an agritourism destination on their farm to basically supplement their income so they can keep the family farm active and going.”

Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real have played Farm Aid for years. “One day, I’m going to make it to that festival,” Alma said.

Spookley the Square Pumpkin teaches kids about the importance of tolerance and acceptance every October, as the “spokes-pumpkin” for PACER, a national anti-bullying organization. (Port City Daliy/Courtesy photo)

Bringing the classroom to the farm

While the 13-acre maze is the draw for Galloway each fall, it also has a 3-acre kids’ fun maze, which includes a Fairy Tale Trail and Spookley’s Story Maze. Alma’s face lights up when she talks about Spookley — another agritourism draw that covers more than just farming.

A story written by Joe Troiano in 2004, Spookley is a square pumpkin who is picked on by the round pumpkins in the patch. Yet, he ends up preventing the farm from enduring complete devastation from a storm all because of his unusual shape. 

“It’s a little bit like Rudolph,” Alma compares. “Spookley is the little misfit who ends up saving the farm at the end of the day.”

The Spookley story inspired national anti-bullying network PACER to endorse the farm program, which is taught worldwide to school kids. It also crowned Spookley the official “spokes-pumpkin” for October’s National Bullying Month, and has inspired merchandise, followup stories, even Disney movies.

Galloway is the only farm in a nine-county region licensed to give Spookley’s anti-bullying presentation. “It’s all about tolerance and kindness and accepting others for being different,” Alma said. 

The farm has had such success with teaching the program, Alma has become a chief executive agritainment officer for Evergreen Creations, which oversees licensing for Spookley marketing materials. “The company creates agricultural educational products for farms like myself to use in the agritourism world even beyond Spookley,” she said.

It informed Galloway’s scavenger hunt and The Fairy Trail Tale. Alma consults with other farmers about the products offered to teach kids about farming and agriculture through school programs. 

An interactive event, Nutrients for Life educates kids about what plants need to grow and thrive. The learning doesn’t stop on the farm either, as materials and tools are offered to teachers to take back to the classroom to continue the lessons. 

“So many children don’t know where their food comes from — there’s just a big disconnection between the public and farming,” Alma said. “I know I can’t bridge that gap by myself, but I hope, for what few people do come out here, I can teach somebody something.”

“For starters, that’s not corn,” she added, while pointing to the maze. “I try not to say we’re a ‘corn maze’ because it’s really sorghum.”

Galloway plants sorghum grass instead of corn because it stands up to hot weather and grows higher.

“A lot of times, we have droughts in the summer, and the corn doesn’t make it and it shrivels up,” she explained, “so the maze becomes only 3 feet tall. People don’t want that experience.” 

To help the crops thrive she does a ladybug release every summer. Around 40,000 go into the crops shortly after the first sighting of the sugarcane aphid (sorghum is a relative plant to sugar cane). People who participate learn about the cycle of nature and how ladybugs eat the aphids, in turn preventing crop destruction. 

“I had the first case of the sugarcane aphid this far southeast,” Alma said. “It takes like a gallon of ladybugs, which is about 75,000 ladybugs, per acre. So, annually, people can come out and get their own cup of ladybugs, and go out in the field and turn them loose.”

Just as concerning for the farm are the numerous hurricanes that hit in the height of Maze Craze season. Located near both the mouth of the Cape Fear River opening into the Atlantic, as well as the North and South Carolina state line puts Galloway in the direct line of hurricane alley. Storms have wrecked the land many times — even multiple times within a month, Alma said. “Mother Nature, we rely on it. We rely on the weather to grow our crops successfully, but it can also be our biggest, our fiercest enemy.”

Alma said six years over the last decade, the maze has been knocked down because of storms. Yet, she and her family always managed to get them up and running to the public, even if it meant clearing 10 miles of trails by hand with a bush axe.

“It might not open necessarily on time — and maybe it wouldn’t look [like] it looks now at 12- or 14-feet tall,” she clarified. “It might have been laid down a little, so you could see over, but I cleared those pathways and I kept it going. As my driving purpose, I want people to realize where their food and fiber comes from — and just exactly what farmers have to endure to make that possible.”

The Maze Craze at Galloway Farm is open Friday and Saturday, 10 a.m. – 9 p.m. (must arrive by 7 p.m.), and Sunday 10 a.m. – 8 p.m. (must arrive by 6 p.m.). Tickets start at $12; season passes are $25.

Galloway Farm owner Alma Galloway sings Hank Williams’ “Your Cheatin’ Heart” in the Singing Bin at the Maze Craze on Galloway Farm. Click to see the video. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

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Shea Carver
Shea Carver is the editor in chief at Port City Daily. A UNCW alumna, Shea worked in the print media business in Wilmington for 22 years before joining the PCD team in October 2020. She specializes in arts coverage — music, film, literature, theatre — the dining scene, and can often be tapped on where to go, what to do and who to see in Wilmington. When she isn’t hanging with her pup, Shadow Wolf, tending the garden or spinning vinyl, she’s attending concerts and live theater.

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