Apr 15, 2008
Emperor of Mirth Keeps the Fun Coming

Bill Bakan takes fun so seriously at Maize Valley Market & Winery that he refers to himself as the Fun Czar.

Besides being serious about fun, he had other reasons for adopting the title. First off, he doesn’t like titles, especially the boring business card variety. When he hands someone a card with “Fun Czar” written on it, there’s a better chance he’ll be remembered. Second, his grandparents emigrated from Ukraine and passed down a sense of the true power a czar wields.

“Historically, they could do just about anything,” he said. “You can’t deny the efficiency of being a czar.”

Despite the authoritative title, Bill, 44, relies more on his networking skills and an active imagination to get things done. His ability to create publicity for the farm is great for business, but it keeps the rest of his family on their toes.

“My husband comes up with the crazy ideas, and we try to make them work,” said Bill’s wife, Michelle.

His latest brainstorm is pitchfork fondue, which will be offered to groups this summer. Steaks will be impaled on a clean pitchfork and dipped in a huge cauldron full of oil, heated from a big burner underneath. The hot oil will fry the steaks, she said.

Pitchfork fondue sounds rather tame compared to some of Bill’s past productions, which have brought a pumpkin cannon, a monster truck, a helicopter, a NASCAR driver and plenty of other excitement to the Hartville, Ohio, farm market.

What’s the secret to making your farm the center of such attention? Bill had some advice: Be persistent without being a pest, find people who can open doors for you and look for mutual opportunities between your business and other businesses.

For example, if you’re willing to carve a company’s name or logo into your corn maze, that company might be willing to pay for the advertising. It’s a win-win situation. As a farm marketer, your job is to recognize such mutual needs and make creative connections between them, he said.

Nowadays, Bill spends almost as much time behind a keyboard as he does out in the field – but as busy as he is, he can’t come close to doing everything. That’s up to the rest of the family.

Michelle handles the day-to-day operations of the market. Her father does most of the growing, her brother runs the winery and her sister-in-law and mother do most of the bookwork, she said.

The family has been farming in the Hartville area since the mid-1800s. Formerly a large cash grain and dairy operation, the family went into direct marketing 15 years ago – selling sweet corn on the side of the road – and hasn’t looked back. In 2000, they sold the dairy herd, downsized the grain operation and switched to growing mainly fruits and vegetables, Michelle said.

Economics and urban sprawl drove the move to agritourism. Their grain and dairy operations were large but not especially profitable. Encroaching development was making it more difficult to farm the 3,000 acres they had at the time, she said.

“It’s pretty built up around us, which is good if you’re trying to sell stuff to people, bad if you’re trying to farm corn and soybeans,” Michelle said. “We realized that if we were going to stay in agriculture we had to find a different way.”

They farm on 700 acres now (they own 150) in a more-or-less suburban area an hour south of Cleveland, close to Canton and Akron. Sweet corn is the No. 1 crop, about 200 acres, but there are also tomatoes, peppers, cantaloupes, watermelons, squash, blueberries, green beans, beets, potatoes and u-pick pumpkins, strawberries and raspberries, she said.

They created their first corn maze in 1999 and ran about 10,000 people through at $4 to $5 a head, Michelle said. The maze is still active, according to Bill, but it’s been overshadowed by other parts of the business.

They restored a 150-year-old barn in 2001 and turned it into their market. They added a winery in 2005 – which is probably growing faster than any other part of the business right now. They recently enclosed the front porch of their market, which wraps around the barn. Visiting groups wanted an enclosed space to work with, so Maize Valley obliged them, Michelle said.

Last year, the market’s sales hit $1 million for the first time. It’s now a year-round operation employing 40 people during the peak season, according to Maize Valley.

The farm still does a fair amount of business in the wholesale market, but the owners want to continually increase direct sales because of the superior margins they bring. In order to do that, they have to find ways to keep customers coming back to the farm. That’s the Fun Czar’s job.

Bill has had a lot of successes in the past. Bigfoot was a big one. A retired version of the monster truck sat on farm property for weeks as part of a sponsorship with a local tire dealer. It brought a huge amount of publicity to the farm. So did Michael Waltrip, the NASCAR driver. He visited the summer the corn maze was designed to look like his car. Waltrip liked the maze, but he was enthralled with the pumpkin cannon.

“Your gourd blower’s got go,” he told Bill.

The farm hosts a lot of interesting activities. There’s a Celtic festival, balloon liftoffs and a cruise-in every Thursday between May and September. Hundreds of hot rods drive out to the farm, where food is served and a deejay plays music from the ’50s. There are door prizes, giveaways and tours, Michelle said.

Then, there’s the helicopter. During the balloon liftoffs, a professional pilot Bill knows gives helicopter rides to farm customers for $65 a head. He flies the same kind of chopper T.C. did in “Magnum, P.I.,” according to Bill.

Obviously, offering helicopter rides is risky, but between the farm’s and the pilot’s insurance plans and the forms customers sign before they fly, Bill thinks the reward outweighs the risk.

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