As the proprietor of Sonoma County’s most popular roadside attraction, Jim Groverman, the farmer behind the Highway 101 corn maze, is the poster guy for “Agritourism” in the North Bay.
In fact, Groverman was doing what he calls “Agro-Tainment” long before the word “agritourism” became part of the farming lexicon and a topic at trendy workshops exploring ways to survive in the farming game. Basically, agritourism refers to any income-generating activity conducted on a farm or ranch for the enjoyment and education of visitors. In other words, visitors, mostly urban residents hungry for a taste of country, come as much for the farm experience as they do to buy pumpkins and gourds.
For the last 20 years, Groverman’s Petaluma Pumpkin Patch and Amazing Corn Maze, along the west side of Highway 101 north of Petaluma, has attracted thousands of visitors each October. But the corn maze isn’t just an October phenomenon. The maze’s rise and fall is monitored by thousands of motorists every day throughout the year. Groverman’s Corn Maze, like Clo the Cow billboards, is a source of curious observation and community pride.
The scrutiny along Highway 101 gets intense in spring when the land is prepared and the seeds planted. Motorists check out the growth of the corn stalks as they sprout from the adobe soil, grow through the summer and by fall reach more than 10 feet tall. In November, the maze disappears. The cornstalks are cut and chopped for silage to feed dairy cows. The cycle is complete.
Groverman and his wife Cindy, who along with daughter Kimberly, offer the North Bay’s increasingly urban and suburban population a chance to soak up the autumnal glory by getting lost in the four-acre corn maze, picking the perfect pumpkin, climbing over hay bales or rummaging through bins of grotesquely-shaped gourds. The farm animal displays, hay stacks and home-baked goods sold by fresh-faced 4-H club members complete the entertainment picture, making Groverman’s farm a kind of Barnyard Disneyland each October.
“What we are doing is agritourism and that’s what makes this operation work. It’s letting people have fun,” said Groverman, 49, as lean and lanky as the corn stocks he grows. “A lot of town people are looking for something to do on weekends, a place to take their kids so they can run around in the country. We are offering them that opportunity.”
The corn maze also has been used by corporations for employee team-building maneuvers. Brides, smitten with pumpkins and Halloween, have rented the Pumpkin Patch for October weddings.
Groverman, a man of few words, is a reluctant showman. If he had his druthers, he would just be on his tractor farming, leaving the entertainment aspect to folks in Hollywood. But he knows in an area like Sonoma County and the San Francisco Bay Area he just can’t grow corn and pumpkins and make a living. He has to offer an agricultural experience to bring the crowds that will pay $6 each to literally get lost in his corn maze.
The corn maze is Groverman’s evolving masterpiece, a four acre piece of living art created from the planting of more than 150,000 corn seeds. Every year he designs a maze that is challenging but not impossible or defeating.
“It’s a true maze. There is only one way in and one way out,” said Groverman. “There is no set pattern. I just wing it. That’s what keeps it interesting and challenging. People keep coming back because it’s different every year.”
The maze’s basic concept is four spokes with six trails each. Even as the maze’s mastermind, Groverman admits he gets lost occasionally amid the towering cornstalks.
“I have even gotten confused,” said Groverman.
He is proud of the roadside attraction he has built over the last 20 years and the pleasure it brings to families. But deep down he admits he is a farmer a heart.
“I like growing the best. That’s the most rewarding part of what I do in this business,” said Groverman, a fourth generation Sonoma County farmer.
As a relative of the Peterson farming clan, Groverman grew up watching busloads of kids arrive on the family ranch on Peterson Road in Sebastopol to pick pumpkins. Perhaps that sparked his interest in farming but it’s more likely that the urge to plant, grow and harvest is part of the DNA passed down by his agricultural ancestors.
Like his pumpkins and corn, Groverman is a homegrown Sonoma County product. He is the second of four children of Dr. Fred Groverman, a veterinarian and internationally-recognized Shropshire sheep breeder, and the late Pat Groverman, who for years was a fixture at her son’s pumpkin patch and corn maze.
Groverman grew up on his family’s 52 acre sheep ranch in Petaluma where chores were part of the daily routine. He began tending livestock and planting crops as kid. He raised pheasants and parakeets, planted pumpkins and shallots and at 9 years old was milking his own cow and making homemade ice cream from the rich cream. He was a member of the 4-H and FFA, showing sheep, hogs and dairy cattle at the fairs.
He graduated from Petaluma High School in 1981 and then studied at Santa Rosa Junior College before transferring to Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo where he earned a degree in dairy science. When he returned to Sonoma County, he worked at various jobs on area ranches while getting his farming business going. Today, in addition to the Petaluma Pumpkin Patch and Amazing Corn Maze, he farms 15 acres of pumpkins on his father’s ranch in Petaluma and grows hay and silage crops on 110 acres of leased land. When not farming he is atop his horse doing team roping or hunting, his two passions.
Groverman grows a variety of pumpkins. Many are sold at the Pumpkin Patch but the rest are sold throughout the Bay Area and shipped out of state to places like Wyoming where the growing season is too short to produce pumpkins.
Groverman said the biggest threat to his bottom-line is rainy weather. Heavy rains during October weekends reduce the crowds and his revenue. But as a farmer he knows he is at the mercy of Mother Nature.
He said his customers aren’t as forgiving when their outing to the Pumpkin Patch is dashed by a rain storm on an October weekend.
“People get more upset than I do when it rains. The weather is out my control. Someone bigger than me is calling the shots,” said Groverman.