Many crisp autumn afternoons have been spent getting lost in corn mazes all over the country, but a drought in the high plains of Texas has prompted one of these mazes to take a new approach to the beloved fall tradition.
This year, visitors looking for a fun fall activity are in for a surprise when they head to At’l Do Farms, located just outside of Lubbock, Texas, for there will be no corn found. In its place - a maze of multi-species cover crops that contains seven different plants. Sorghum, sunflowers, pearl and foxtail millet, cowpeas, sun hemp and radishes will all work together to reduce water inputs.
A family affair
Eric Simpson was born and raised on the same property that At’l Do Farms still calls home today, and agriculture has been a family affair for generations. Originally, the land was a monoculture system that rotated growing cotton, sorghum and wheat until the mid-’90s.
When a low period hit, the Simpson family was forced to reevaluate their business. They decided to use the land in a different way and planted their first corn maze in an attempt to bring visitors to the farm and generate a new stream of revenue.
“It became more and more profitable and in fact, we slowly transitioned out of the production side of agriculture and now we just do the maze and a kind of agritourism type of industry,” Simpson said.
At’l Do Farms has operated the maze and other fall attractions for 21 years and the farm now welcomes over 50,000 visitors each season.
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A dry area in drying times
Dubbed the Llano Estacado by early Spanish settlers, this region is an approximately 32,000 square mile plateau situated atop the southern boundary of the Ogallala Aquifer that receives an average of 18 inches of precipitation a year.
Widespread drought and as little as one-tenth of an inch of rain during the winter of 2021 meant corn had a slim chance of growing to the height necessary to construct the maze.
“What we could see from last year is it didn’t rain pretty much from September all the way until May,” Simpson said. “Corn, which is a very water-intensive crop, just wasn’t going to cut it. Because of climate conditions, it just didn’t rain, and it forced us to make a better decision.”
These conditions sent Simpson to the drawing board in order to find a way the maze could still happen while reducing its water consumption footprint. His neighbor uses a traditional pivot irrigation system but Simpson knew he did not want to be reliant on the Ogallala Aquifer.
Globally, approximately 70% of groundwater that is drawn out of aquifers is used for crop irrigation.
“The entire agriculture industry right now is propped up on the Ogallala (Aquifer) as its water resource,” Simpson said. “The Ogallala is depleting at a way faster rate than what is being recharged.”
The Ogallala Aquifer is a finite resource. In the next 50 years, 70% of the Ogallala Aquifer is estimated to be depleted, with the main withdrawals stemming from the agriculture industry.
“I think in my lifetime we will see a drastic transition away from agriculture on the Llano Estacado because of a depleting aquifer and extreme climate change,” said Simpson.
An artist by trade, Simpson never planned on returning to the family farm after graduating from Texas Tech. He found himself back in West Texas after being accepted to an art residency in Lubbock.
“It was at that time that I saw that farming didn’t have to be the way that it’s always been here,” Simpson said. “In the sense that you could make changes about biodiversity, soil health and planting drought-tolerant crops.”
Forging a new maze
Creating a polycultural farming system like Simpson has done at At’l Do Farms this season has a multitude of benefits for the health of his land. The variety of plants attracts pollinators, reduces erosion, decreases pesticide and herbicide usage, reduces harmful pests, and increases nutrient cycling.
“Lubbock is notorious for being a little bit behind the times, but I think that’s OK,” Simpson said. “It gives us young folks the opportunity to see what other folks are doing in other parts of the country and jump in.”
Simpson and his family are forging new paths in the agriculture industry and he believes they can spark change amongst his peers in the agritourism industry. Change towards a more sustainable future.
“To my knowledge, we are the first ones to do a multispecies crop for a maze,” Simpson said. “I think we are showing people throughout the country the options for doing types of things like this.”
Looking toward the future, Simpson says he definitely wants to continue planting non-traditional crops for the annual maze, building healthy soil and working with the land — not against it.
“As long as we can continue to make little baby steps towards alternative and more drought tolerant and resistant practices, that’s what we are going to do to keep the farm alive," Simpson said.