There’s an old joke. Show me a farmer and I’ll show you a man out-standing in his field. For guys like Don Schuster excellence in agriculture has never been more challenging. Increased government regulation, low market produce prices and a changing global climate make for an intricate labyrinth of obstacles to navigate.
Owner with his wife Theresa of Schuster’s Playtime Farm, this fifth generation crop grower is constantly coming up with new ways to make the most of his patch of land on Highway 12 just outside of Madison in the town of Deerfield. Through the fall months at the height of the harvest season he opens his property to the general public to provide a fun educational experience that also helps to raise money for those less fortunate in our community.
But if you ask Schuster why he’s a farmer, he’ll give you a businessman’s answer. “I’m in it to make money,” he said. “Plain and simple.”
Talk to him for 5 minutes as you walk through his farmland and you’ll discover there’s much more to it for Schuster than turning a buck.
“I grew up on a farm in Sun Prairie, dairy, hog and cash grain. And when we bought this place I was just looking for something to play with,” he said. “We were looking for something to invest in, so I could have a few cattle, a big garden and come home from the office and try to relax.”
Schuster used to work as a feed salesman for Land O’Lakes. And shortly after earning a graduate degree he took a staff position at the University of Wisconsin Center for Agriculture Systems as an economist. He formerly taught classes in human resources and farm management but now works at the UW part-time.
“Funny that I’m the only one in my family still in farming,” Schuster said, “even with a college degree.”
Applying a little business savvy to the occupation of farming can only help. As Schuster struggled to make a living selling produce he found there’re better ways to make profit from his passion. Today about 30,000 people visit his farm in the fall to enjoy everything from a petting zoo to hay rides, pumpkin picking, a hunted forest and an elaborate corn maze. His Centennial Round Barn, built in 1903 is open for weddings and birthday parties. And with a variety of other concession stands and activities for the family Schuster has a part-time staff of more than 90 employees.
“The reason I got into all this is because we couldn’t make any money on the produce,” Schuster said. “People would rather pay for memories and having a good time.”
One of the farm’s biggest annual draws is the corn maze. A puzzle path is cut into a vast field of corn that stands 9 feet high.
“We have people from all over who all they do is corn mazes all fall long. Those people can do it in about 45 minutes,” Schuster said. “We had some people in there for more than an hour. If you have no sense of direction you can be in there for a really long time!”
With the help of Brett Herbst, founder of corn maze design firm the Maize, based in Spanish Fork Utah, Schuster can install a challenging course he says makes a statement.
“This year the maze is dedicated to the ‘Share your Lunch Money’ program,” Schuster said. “We put their logo right into the design and hope people learn what it’s all about.”
Share Your Lunch Money is a program that aims to raise $75,000 to benefit the Second Harvest Food Bank of Southern Wisconsin and the Community Action Coalition. Schuster plans to donate to the proceeds of the corn maze this year to provide food assistance to needy families throughout Dane County.
“We’ve donated money from the corn maze to charity pretty much since we started it. That was 11 years ago,” he said. “Last year we donated to Gilda’s Club.”
Each year the corn maze helps to raise awareness for a particular philanthropic cause. Schuster hopes to exceed last year’s donation of $3,500 with a goal of $5,000 he hopes to raise by the season’s end on November 1st. This year Schuster said the charity strikes a cord that rings close to home.
“Most people are one or two generations removed from the family farm. At the turn of the century 80 percent of the population were farmers. That’s all changed now,” Schuster said. “People need to know where their food comes from. So this charity really makes sense for us.”
This story originally appeared in the Good Works column in October issue of the Capital Region Business Journal
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