by Sally Colby
When third-generation farmer Mike Swore and his wife Wendy had an opportunity to purchase a 29-acre farm next to Mike’s grandfather’s farm near Pocatello, Idaho, it was the start of a thriving family business. With an additional rented 90 acres, the family has created a multifaceted agricultural enterprise that supplies the local area with fresh produce and family fun each fall.
A corn maze that Wendy and Mike once attended with their family influenced the mazes Wendy creates today. “The first time I went to a corn maze, which was about 12 years ago, I took my little kids,” she said. “After the first hour, we were all done and wanted to get out.”
Based on that experience, Wendy creates a corn maze that’s different from most mazes. It’s relatively short, taking about 37 minutes to go through, and includes several exit opportunities. “I make it myself with a weed-whacker, and at every fork there’s a question about agriculture,” said Wendy. “If someone chooses the wrong answer, they hit a dead end, and if they answer correctly, they can go further in the maze. But people won’t be lost for too long.”
Questions might read ‘who makes chocolate milk — brown cows or people?’ Wendy says an amazing number of people answer incorrectly. Other questions are true or false, including whether DDT caused the extinction of bald eagles. “That’s false — it’s one of those myths that won’t die,” said Wendy, who finds herself having to provide facts and details about ag questions their customers ask.
Wendy’s solution to spending extra time explaining the answers to common questions was to create an answer key on the farm’s website. A QR code on the signs throughout the corn maze is linked to the answer key on the site. “The QR code is on the sign, so if they want to learn more about something, they can scan it with a smartphone and learn the facts that support the answer,” she said.
The first mazes at Swore Farms were difficult to create because Wendy waited too long to cut the paths and the corn was too tall. “After a few years of that, I started cutting it when the corn was shin-high,” she said. “But because I’m doing everything else and have five kids, by the time I’m done, it’s up to my hips — it only takes a couple of weeks for it to get that high. Now I usually get it finished before I can’t see over it.”
In addition to the corn maze, Swore Farms offers fall activities aimed at providing families with lasting memories. Throughout the season, a friend’s draft horse team is on the farm to move wagons from the maze to the pumpkin patch. Weekdays are filled with school and other group field trips, each of which is geared to the age of the group. “We have lots of pre-school trips,” said Wendy. “If the kids are really little, we’ll take turns sitting in the tractor, talk about machinery, then we have several games for them to play and they go through the maze.”
The 13-acre pumpkin patch includes about 15,000 pumpkin plants, which are started in greenhouses and hand planted by Wendy and her children. The Swores have selected about 12 varieties that have proven to be reliable. “Our favorite is the Wolf pumpkin,” said Wendy. “We love the huge, thick stems. We also grow Howdens, ghost pumpkins, Solid Gold and Gold Rush. Our favorites for the little kids are small varieties like Jack Be Little. We go through crates and crates of those each year.”
In addition to their reputation for providing great fall activities, Swore Farms is known for their sweet corn. Each year, Wendy and Mike establish several successive sweet corn plantings to ensure a steady supply throughout the season. Wendy recalls that when she and Mike first moved to the farm, they picked sweet corn with wheelbarrows and buckets. Now, they plant alternate wide and narrow rows so that a lawn tractor will fit between the rows. “We have two rows close together, then enough space for an irrigation line, then two more rows, then a space wide enough for a tractor,” said Wendy. “When we pick, we’ll attach two or three carts to the tractor, and my kids can drive the tractor down the rows and I pick into the trailer. I never have to pick it up again — we sell the corn right out of the cart.” Each year, the Swores donate corn to a local food bank; last year they donated 24,000 pounds.
The Swores have two high tunnels and will soon erect three additional 30’ x 100’ high tunnels to start crops and extend the season. “We’re hoping to get them up by fall so we can get some of the cool weather crops in,” said Wendy. “We tried growing hanging baskets in their greenhouses, but found that if the baskets weren’t just right, people didn’t buy them. “We’re having much better luck with strawberry baskets because people don’t care what the individual strawberry plant looks like as long as there are strawberries on it,” she said.
This year, the Swores offered CSA shares for the first time. “This year we have 29 full shares and some half shares,” said Wendy. “We plan to expand and offer 50 to 60 shares next year, and continue to increase by 30 shares each year.” Wendy says when they started this season, they had no idea how much a 100’ foot long row of spinach would yield, but after preparing several weeks’ worth of shares, they can now estimate what each row and crop will yield. The first shares included rhubarb, beets, lettuce, spinach, green onions and last fall’s russet potatoes. This summer’s shares will also include freshly milled flour from the farm’s 50 acres of hard red wheat.
Although Swore Farms isn’t organic, they consider themselves minimalists and use both conventional and organic methods. “I want people to understand that there’s a balance,” said Wendy. “We rotate crops, and I explain that we use as little as possible and do we what have to do. People have this idea that farmers dump chemicals on everything, and that just isn’t true. We use beneficial insects in the greenhouse, but if we have an infestation, we’d use something rather than let everything die.”
Wendy uses the farm’s Facebook page to post pictures that show what the family is doing from day to day on the farm. “People see we’re planting and working,” she said. “It brings people from the city a little bit closer to the farm.”
Visit Swore Farms on Facebook, and online at www.sworefarms.com.
by Sally Colby