Being a farmer is not easy. Growers have to deal with the whims of mother nature, an unstable labor force, changing consumer tastes and market forces that are beyond their control. And in California, where land prices are high, there is always that tension between staying the course for another season or packing it all in and selling up to the nearest developer.
At Swank Farms in Hollister, Bonnie and Dick Swank are indeed staying the course, but the savvy couple realized years ago they would need to do more than grow fresh produce to maintain their business long-term.
“Farmers have had to learn how to diversify,” said Bonnie Swank recently at the couple’s homestead ranch off the Pacheco Pass Highway. “We are working on reinventing ourselves. We did well for a number of years, but things change.”
About twenty years ago debts were piling up and the couple needed cash fast.
“Farming wasn’t doing it and we needed to make money,” said Bonnie Swank. “So we started planting the corn.”
The couple had talked about doing a corn maze before, but necessity being the mother of invention, the Swanks decided to go all-in, pitched the USDA for a loan, which they got, and nearly twenty years later, getting scared silly at the Halloween corn maze and spook-fest at Swank Farms is an annual tradition for tens of thousands of area families.
“Our contact at the USDA was one of the few people to believe in us,” said Bonnie Swank. “But we ended up paying back the loan in record time and it was a success story for the USDA. They even wrote an article about us.”
This year, Swank Farms is in the midst of another period of reinvention. The Halloween attraction is at a new location and the corn maze is more challenging than ever.
“Because of the configuration of property—I did not go as elaborate in the past—this is a true maze. I wanted to make it more challenging, a real puzzle. So much of it is identical to other parts, that you have to be careful. And because of the variety of corn we grow the leaves are big and grow into the pathways. This is probably one of the best mazes I’ve designed,” said Bonnie Swank, who has designed every one of the corn mazes.
This year’s haunted attraction, called “terror in the corn” will again feature actors dressed in costume and play off the inherent spookiness of the outdoors.
“It will be located across a creek, where you’ve got trees, corn growing, old farming equipment, it’s very creepy—even during the day,” she said.
The Swanks have also changed how they charge admission. Tickets are now all-included so families can enjoy all the activities—kiddie corral, jumping pillows, maniac maze—without having to pay separately. People can also visit the pumpkin patch before entering. There will also be a real parking lot.
“We like to say that the corn maze supports our bad habit of farming,” said Bonnie Swank, smiling. “But we don’t just do the corn maze and go on an extended vacation. We are still farmers year-round.”
Swank Farms produce can be found at farmers markets in the region and at discerning restaurants.
Bonnie Swank said they are looking to expand more of their restaurant trade because farmers markets are not as profitable as they used to be as market managers allow multiple farms to sell the same product.
Now as they look to develop their own land, the Swanks are thinking about holding other events on the 20-acre parcel.
“We always wanted to do a little tomato festival and we have a lot of chef friends who would like to do a farm-to-table dinner. This location is much nicer and we can plant trees and perhaps build a barn for weddings,” said Swank. “We have wanted to do it for a long time.”
18th Annual Corn Maze, Pumpkin Patch and Haunted Terror in the Corn is at 4751 Pacheco Pass Highway, Hollister. September 29–October 31. Swankfarms.com.