Navigating the corn maze: Jacob’s Farm champions agritourism


First in our series on solutions to the farming crisis

By Jacob Wheeler

Sun editor

Top: Mike Witkop addresses the agritourism summit on May 7. Photo by Esmaeil Nasrollahiazar / MSU Extension. Bottom: An aerial view of Jacob’s Farm.

“Houses are great, but I think this is real pretty,” Jacob’s Farm owner Michael Witkop said as he stood outside the hilltop Orchard View wedding barn and gazed north across their 10-acre corn maze to the red centennial barn, where workers scurried like busy ants to open the restaurant, bar, and outdoor music venue by early June. Beyond the M-72 corridor, which connects his destination to bustling Traverse City, the hills of Leelanau County hovered in the distance like low-hanging clouds.

On May 7, Witkop addressed 65 attendees of Michigan State University (MSU) Extension’s first-ever Agritourism Summit, which included a tour of local agritourism businesses that have succeeded in bringing customers directly to their farms—thereby forestalling the fate that has forced tens of thousands of small farms across the United States to close in recent decades.

The tour that day included others who have aced direct-to-consumer retail: Leelanau Cheese, 9 Bean Rows, Tandem Ciders, and Farm Club. Speakers at the sit-down portion of the summit the following day at Northwestern Michigan College’s Hagerty Center discussed how agritourism has become a vital part of the state’s agricultural economy.

“Farmers have been struggling in recent years,” said Rob Sirrine, an educator with MSU Extension. “We are seeing growth in smaller scale farms that are nimble and able to adapt to changing market conditions and don’t have major investments in specialized equipment, such as cherry harvest equipment. They add value to products and often specialize in direct-to-consumer sales, including farm stands, farm markets, and hoop house production.”

Sirrine added that, prior to the pandemic, he and his colleagues heard stories of farmers trying to implement agritourism on their farms to diversify their income streams, only to learn that local zoning prevented them from doing so. In many cases, there was confusion over Michigan’s Right to Farm Act and township zoning ordinances.

“We hosted a series of programs called ‘Cultivating Local Farm Economies: Planning, Zoning, and Emerging Issues in Agritourism’ where we sought to educate farmers and elected officials on novel opportunities to support rural and regional economic development. We’ve been receiving more and more requests for this type of programming.”

Agritourism initiatives on Old Mission Peninsula, north of Traverse City, has received some pushback.

“We were approached by some community members to develop a program to start a conversation about agritourism,” said Sirrine. “Are there ways to allow farmers to diversify their income streams through agritourism in ways that also address public concerns?”

The hurdles facing northern Michigan farmers—particularly cherry farmers—are formidable. They include climate change and unpredictable weather events, competition from cheap foreign imports, lack of workers and antiquated federal immigration policies, and soaring land prices that favor housing developers over farmland.

Those problems mirror the existential challenges that farmers elsewhere face. Wholesale crop prices continue to decline, even as inflation following the COVID-19 pandemic and Russia’s war in Ukraine have jacked up the prices of key products such as fertilizer. Rising interest rates have increased the cost of borrowing land, planting and harvesting. Meanwhile, land values surged by 29% between 2020 and 2023.

Nearly 142,000 farms nationwide ceased operation between 2017 and 2022, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Meanwhile the amount of land “operated by farm operations” fell by 20 million acres. The trend that manifested decades ago has gathered momentum in the past decade. Numbers from the National Agriculture Statistics Service show that, even as the average size of farms has risen, 544,000 farms have closed since 1981. And when farms close, real estate developers move in.

But some forward-thinking farmers and food entrepreneurs in northern Michigan have found solutions to those vexing problems—ranging from diversifying crops and farm locations, to identifying niche markets, to offering on-site working housing, to agritourism and direct-to-consumer retail. We’ll feature those farmers in a series this summer in the Glen Arbor Sun.

The story of Jacob’s Farm is one of family tradition but also creative innovation. The farm opened in 1892 when Dutch immigrant Jacob Witkop purchased the property. In 1918, Jacob’s son John and his wife Mary took over the operation, before passing it on to their son Hiram and his wife Jane. Hiram and Jane’s son Michael returned to his family farm with his wife Laverna and purchased it in 1995. That’s where the traditional farm story takes a creative turn.

In 2008, Mike and Laverna Witkop worked with local government zoning to launch Jacob’s Farm Enterprises, LLC, and opened the corn maze. The computer-designed maze features a different theme each year, and it’s a huge draw for young families throughout the region, particularly in the autumn weeks leading up to Halloween. A visit to the corn maze pairs well with donuts and apple cider from the restaurant near the red barn on M-72.

“I was turning 50 years old and I doubted whether we could keep farming,” said Witkop. “At that point we were leasing the farm to others who grew corn. I knew we wanted to do something different.”

Around 2008, wineries were popping up all over the Leelanau peninsula, agritourism was becoming a familiar concept, and Witkop befriended Don Coe, then owner of Black Star Farms near Suttons Bay, who mentored him.

“Farming was expensive,” added Witkop. “Putting trees or grapes in the ground would be costly and would take a long time to grow. We were already growing corn; we already had a great field and parking. That’s how we settled on a corn maze.”

Jacob’s Farm still features a U-pick operation where customers can get strawberries starting in mid-June, sweet cherries in July, raspberries from July through September, and peaches, plums and apples in the early fall. But the corn maze is—you guessed it—less about corn to eat and more about the allure of a labyrinth on traditional farmland. Corn from the maze is still harvested at the end of the season and shared with a local farmer who uses it to feed his cattle.

The 40-acre farm expanded its operations in 2020 during the height of pandemic when consumers felt more comfortable gathering and dining outdoors. With the help of partners who had worked at Rare Bird Brewery, Brew Bus and Kayak, Bikes & Brews in Traverse City, the Witkops added outdoor dining and cocktail service, and later a stage for live music. Between the picnic tables and the corn maze, kids can frolic at an outdoor playground nestled under river birch and crab apple trees, while parents order food, enjoy drinks and almost nightly live music.

Two years ago, Jacob’s Farm added the Orchard View barn on the hill overlooking the corn maze, which now hosts more than 20 weddings each year. Nuptial ceremonies are also offered upstairs in the centennial barn and in the “cathedral of trees” adjacent to the corn maze. Guests can walk from the ceremony to the barn or take a tractor hayride. Other events have included Interlochen Arts Academy’s prom, as well as graduation parties, corporate and nonprofit events, and a Coast Guard dinner. During the summer months Jacob’s Farm is open Wednesday-Friday from 3-9 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday from noon-9 p.m. Live music is performed Thursday-Sunday.

During the agritourism summit in May, Witkop contemplated bringing back cattle during the spring, summer and fall months “for city people to see,” he said. Jacob’s Farm was once home to 200 head of cattle. While neighboring traditional farms wrestle with the hurdles facing today’s growers, Witkop knows his agritourism destination will continue to draw customers.

“They’re never gonna move M-72 or the West Grand Traverse Bay,” he said. “They’re never gonna move Leelanau County. We’re just taking advantage of what people are looking for.”

For advocates of agritourism, the growing sector offers an opportunity to rethink farmland and to plant a hedge against housing development.

“If we value farms, farmers, and the open space and environmental benefits that farms can provide, we will need to adjust how we define agriculture. Otherwise, we won’t have farms, especially in areas where farms must compete with development,” said Sirrine of MSU Extension. “The ideal fruit sites also happen to be the best view sites were people want to build houses. This drives up the price of land and makes it increasingly difficult to pass the farm on to the next generation.”