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Get Lost in Conservation

By Donnie Lunsford, USDA-NRCS Public Affairs Specialist

Do you ever just want to get lost in the country? In Midland County, you can stop by Fiddlesticks Farms and get lost in their corn maze, eat their famous kettle corn, and learn first-hand what all goes into farming, your food, and how the American farmer feeds the world.

Matt and Jessica Norton, owners of Fiddlesticks Farms, are celebrating their tenth season of their corn maze. The maze offers more than just your average meandering trail through corn stalks. The Norton’s mission is to have everyone walk away knowing more about agriculture, where their food comes from, and how their food is grown and processed. Not only do you have to answer agriculture-based trivia questions correctly to navigate your way through the corn maze, but you will move your agriculture adventure to the learning barn. There you will see all of the farm’s animals and a live demonstration of a dairy cow getting milked with a commercial milking machine that the American Dairy Farmers use to milk their cows twice daily.

“The learning barn is the most important part of our operation and I won’t allow a field trip to come out to the farm unless they go through the learning barn because that is where I get to teach them about agriculture,” says Matt. “These kids, and even some adults, don’t know where their food truly comes from so I get them in the barn, we milk the cow, bottle feed the calves, see our incubator where we hatch chicks, and see the rest of the animals like our ducks, racing pigs, sheep, lambs, and much more.”

Educating on the farm

During the weekdays of October and November, upwards of 450 students per day from local area schools will take field trips to the farm. The weekends are filled with families, staff, and each year new activities continue to attract more and more guests. It takes over 90 employees to run this farm and maze for two months out of the year.

“The kids and families enjoy learning about agriculture and they don’t realize it because they learn hands-on and can see agriculture in progress rather than a traditional classroom setting,” says Jessica.

The entire farm is laced with facts about agriculture and everything is done in a conservation and agriculture minded way. They use apples to shoot out of their apple blasters from an orchard that would have to just discard them due to lack of quality for making cider. Visitors can purchase farm raised pumpkins at the pumpkin patch. The visitors learn about the different parts of the corn plant with the tassels, stalks, and ears of corn that came from a tiny seed that was planted just a few months prior. 

With urbanization on an upward trend, more and more people are disconnected from the farm these days. The Fiddlesticks Farm’s Learning Barn is geared towards educating people that have little or no knowledge about farm life. The milking demonstration last more than 15 minutes describing the care taken to keep the animal and her calves healthy, handling the animal to lead it to the commercial milking machine, safety measures for the person and cow, cleaning the udders with the proper soap, and pasteurization of the finished product.

Conservation is a priority

The Nortons also share how they save water by only giving each plant exactly how much it needs so nothing is wasted.

 “At Fiddlesticks Farms, our primary business is agritourism but there is a lot of work that goes into farming and getting the maze ready for our guests. Our water is our biggest limiting factor. The groundwater is not the best quality in our area but we are able to utilize a pivot system and micro irrigation system that allows us to successfully grow our maze every year through the assistance of the Natural Resources Conservation Service,” Matt says.

The corn maze uses a two part system to successfully grow corn in West Texas. The water quality and the sand dominated soil pose the biggest issues. A sprinkler system is used to germinate the seeds and micro irrigation, also known as drip irrigation, delivers water directly to the plant under the soil surface at the root level. In a drip irrigation system, there is specially designed tape that is plowed underground supplying the water directly to the root system through emitters to the plants root zone increasing efficiency and reducing water loss due to surface evaporation. Irrigation water management allows them to know how much water is needed for the crops and it has saved them energy costs by not over applying water to the maze and crops.

Matt explains, “For many years, we planted cover crops like wheat and oats to keep our soil protected from the harsh West Texas winds out here and we finally decided we needed to plant it to a permanent grass and now you can drive by on a windy day and see our soil isn’t moving unlike some of neighbors. We have gone even further by reducing our plowing by implementing an improved conservation tillage system through strip till and no-till on all the fields where it can be implemented. Just by changing our tillage operations, we run our plows less which reduces our fuel and labor costs, allowing us to see instant results with less soil erosion taking place.”

Keeping the “farming habit”

While Matt and Jessica spend most of the off-season working to have a successful two month season, Matt also farms cantaloupes, pumpkins, and row crops such as cotton, wheat and hay.

Matt says, “The farmers joke about having many jobs so they can keep their farming habit and that really is how it works with Fiddlesticks Farms and our other farms. There is a lot of work that goes into the entire production. The watermelons are planted by hand using saplings in bedded rows and they must be harvested the same way, with back-breaking labor.”

The Norton’s try to use all of their resources to be good stewards of the land. They try to reduce water usage through their irrigation system; they take soils samples to know exactly how much fertilizer is needed for their crop which can also be delivered through their micro irrigation system reducing nutrient runoff; they utilize a pest management program, and much more.

Educating the public on agriculture and conservation is the most important thing for the school kids. Matt has a Master’s in Agriculture Education from Texas Tech and was an Ag teacher for several years before he decided he needed to go back to the farm. But his passion never faded and now he is back at the farm reaching one person at a time. You can see that passion during his milking demonstration and when he talks about farming and raising animals.

“I enjoy seeing the looks on the kids’ faces when they see the milking of the cow, the many animals in the barn, the ride on the tractor to the pumpkin patch and they realize this is how food has always been made and is still made this way to this day,” says Matt. 

Get Lost in Conservation, Donnie Lunsford, USDA-NRCS Public Affairs Specialist(2017, November)