Bill Baken: Maize Valley Winery’s Master of Events
At its peak, Northern Ohio farmer Bill Baken’s operation included 150 Holsteins, one half million bushels of grain storage and 6,000 acres of crops. But during the 1990’s, Baken and his wife, Michelle, saw that family farming was becoming more challenging. So in 2001, the Baken’s dramatically reorganized their business.
“You always have to be thinking one step ahead as a farmer, and now we’re in a real value added business, agritourism,” Baken says.
Today, Maize Valley Farm Market & Winery consists of a winery, bakery, cafe, petting zoo and farmer’s market. Winery events are an important part of the winery’s business and Maize Valley is known for having some of the most creative and well executed celebrations in the Midwest. While some of Baken’s events might be viewed as “over the top,” he says there are two common themes that connect all Maize Valley events.
“At the core of everything we do is the is the recognition that we are still farmers,” Baken said. “We produce quality food and wine and present it in an enthusiastic way with a little entertainment as an added attraction.”
The second principal that guides Baken is an empathy for his customers that is anything but contrived. “Our customers are not only spending their money with us, but, more importantly, they are spending their time with us,” Baken said. “Money, you can get that back, but time is gone forever. We are always conscious of making the time our customers spend here valuable. We want to offer a common sense mix of farm, food and value.”
And what kind of events do Northern Ohio wine tourists like? Based on the most popular events at Maize Valley, folks in this unpretentious part of the country like noise, action and fun that sometimes borders on childish.
One event that draws between 4,000 and 5,000 visitors to the winery is Megasaurus. Building an agricultural theme around a 48,000 pound, fire-breathing vehicle that is built on Sherman tank chassis -hence the name Megasaurus- comes naturally for Baken.
“Megasaurus’ big thing is to eat cars, so we take two old scrap cars out in the field,” Baken says. “One car is filled with pumpkins and Megasaurus rips that car open and breathes fire into it which essentially cooks the pumpkins. We call it ‘Megasaurus makes pumpkin pie at Maize Valley.’ Of course, we grow all the pumpkins ourselves.”
During a fall corn maze event, Baken shoots pumpkins out of a cannon, some of which travel one half mile. Not surprisingly, this event is a magnet for TV news film crews. A couple of years ago, Miguel Marquez of CNN covered the pumpkin artillery demonstration and even shot off the cannon himself.
The corn maze itself is a big draw for Maize Valley. When Baken cut the design for the maze this summer and posted it on Facebook, it got over 20,000 views. Adult weekend admission to the corn maze is $10 and the corn is 7-8 feet tall this year. “It’s the best corn we’ve had in 10 years,” Baken said.
Some of Baken’s corn goes to feed his pigs which have their special role in Maize Valley’s event schedule. Yes, Maize Valley has pig races, but with a Nascar spin. According to Baken, The “NASHOG” event is a “Sea World” type show that features 16 pigs racing on the hour in heats of four. Each fall, Baken says he runs between 50 and 100 races on the weekend which attract such large crowds that bleachers had to be constructed. This year he is considering erecting lights so the races can go off at night.
Not all of Maize Valley’s events involve competition or pyrotechnics. Wednesday and Friday nights at the winery are kept low-key with music acts. Wednesday nights also include a successful jewelry exhibition.
“We touch as many demographics as we can with our events,” Baken said. “We try to not get too far out there with our events, but I guess you could say we’re the winery with adult ADHD.”
Baken also has events that support charitable causes. A “Bra Decorating” contest at Maize Valley helped raise $7,000 for the Susan Komen breast cancer charity. (Michelle Baken is a breast cancer survivor.)
Maintaining a schedule with dozens of events is a challenge. Baken says that inevitably sometimes events don’t come off as planned. This year, Maize Valley’s popular “Hero Rush”- a fireman themed obstacle course- and “Farmathalon” had to be postponed and rescheduled because of miscommunications and misunderstandings with vendors. “In this business, you can’t be afraid of making mistakes,” Baken says.
Baken hopes to find a new date for “Farmathalon,” an offbeat combination of a 5k run and an agricultural endurance contest. For the $40 entry fee ($60 at the door), contestants get to “Giddy-Up Through the Grapes” – maneuver over and under hurdles through the vineyard rows- and do the “Mad Cow Mud Crawl” – on your belly thru a minefield of cow patties.
“The goal of Farmathalon is to make people smile,” Baken said. “Farmathalon grew out of a 5k race we had at the winery. We keep adding new things to Farmathlaon like climbing over a bus, carrying a bale of hay, scaling a wall, wading through a muddy creek and crawling through a mud pit.”
While events are integral part of Maize Valley, growing grapes and making wine is the primary focus. Baken said he got the inspiration for his theme oriented winery form Huber Winery in Indiana. Huber, the second largest tourist destination in Indiana, is known for both quality wine and a diversified agritourism business model.
See related story: Indiana’s Huber Winery: Seven Generations and 600 Acres Later
Baken grows 8-10 acres of grapes including the University of Minnesota varietal, La Crescent. However, of the 18,000 gallons of wine that he produces per year, 70% are labrusca based wines including Catawba.
“We really do concentrate on making great wine,” Baken said. “I’m on the Ohio Grape Industry Committee and we’re member of the Ohio Quality Wine program. Our goal is to make great wine fun. However, the best bottle of wine will not make up for a bad experience at the winery.”
Homepage photo: KLM Photographics, see KLM’s website for a portfolio of Maize Valley event photographs.