MAD DOG: Corn, It's an A-maze-ing Thing!

Farming can be fun. I'm saying this as a city boy who can spend hours driving through the countryside trying to guess what the crops are and, unless there's a roadside stand with a big neon sign spelling it out for me, I'm pretty much always wrong. Exhaust-spewing buses I can identify. The homeless, I know. Billowing smokestacks are second nature. So what if I can't tell an artichoke field from an orange grove?

At least I know a good time when I see it. That's why it's nice to find out that Brett Herbst of Pleasant Grove, Utah is doing a booming business turning corn fields into mazes. He made his first one in 1996 after seeing "The Shining", figuring that if people thought Jack Nicholson was at his farm they'd pay good money to see him. Just kidding. Actually it turned out they thought Shelly Duval was there and no one remembered who she was. In spite of that, 18,000 people showed up over a three-week period to walk through the maze. And why not, who wouldn't enjoy feeling like Orville Redenbacher checking his inventory without a compass?

Herbst was so happy with the success of his maize maze that he started making them for other farmers. He's built them from Hawaii to Rhode Island, doing sixty of them this year alone. People come from miles around hoping their dead fathers will show up and play baseball with them. Sorry, wrong movie. Actually they come by hoping to see an accident, which happens in cornfields more often than you think.

Cornfields, it turns out, are dangerous places. In Iowa alone there are over sixty corn-related car accidents each year. It seems that when the corn gets as high as an elephant's eye--sorry, that's Oklahoma I'm thinking of--I mean, when it gets tall it blocks the driver's view, causing them to mistake the cornfield for the state fair so they start playing bumper cars. Of course it could be that they just turned a little too much of their crop into corn liquor.

The farmers that hire Herbst do it because they need the extra cash. Maybe they had a bad crop last year. Or perhaps the price of corn is down. But chances are it's because they're growing the same damned thing everyone else is. Face it, if everyone around you is growing corn and you're growing corn, what are the chances that your corn will be so much better that you can command higher prices? Not good. Competition is fine, but the big money is in innovation. That's why these farmers should bag the corn and start raising hornets.

Yes, hornets. Now that the Sydney Olympics are over and all the drug residue has settled in everyone's bloodstream, it turns out that Japanese runner Naoko Takahashi may have won the women's marathon because she drank juice made from giant yellow hornet larvae. And no, that's not a band from Austin, though it might be if any musicians there would take time out from looking for a girlfriend so they can move out of their parents' house and read a newspaper once in a while.

Called suzemebachi (Japanese for "try not to throw up"), scientists in Tokyo say the juice gives athletes a big energy boost. Best of all it's natural, legal, and tastes better than tuna Kool-Aid. If it turns out that suzemebachi works you can expect to see Gatorade in "Happy Hornet" flavor, Raisin Bran with "Two Scoops of Hornets", and "Largely Larva" energy bars on your grocer's shelf. This will give those boring old corn farmers a chance to raise something different, something in demand, something that can sting the hell out of them. Hey, it could be worse. They could decide to start bear bile farms like they have in China

It's true. In China they raise bears so they can get bear bile without having to track down the bears. Bear bile, they say, is good for what ails you, including hepatitis and cancer. Not to mention that it makes chugging suzemebachi sound absolutely scrumptious. Farming bears probably isn't all that bad, but something tells me harvesting the bile isn't great big gobs of fun. I don't even want to think about how you do that. After all, there are some things you're better off not knowing in life, like what they put in those Krispy Kreme doughnuts you found in the glove compartment of your car the other night and ate without stopping to wonder why they hadn't shown any signs of going bad after four months. And how they harvest bear bile, of course.

Corn farmers need to consider these options carefully, since people are increasingly worried about corn. Kellogg recently closed down two manufacturing lines because they couldn't be certain the corn they were using wasn't genetically altered. They didn't say why it might have been altered, but I suspect it was to increase the nutritional value. If they were smart they'd start altering it to grow in a maze-like pattern or to have blinking red warning lights for oncoming traffic. Or maybe they could cross it with giant yellow hornets so we could get our daily dose of suzemebachi in our succotash. Either way I hope they put up a big neon sign on the side of the road so I can tell it's corn they're growing. Hey, I'm a city boy, you know?

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