From hayrides and corn mazes to an animal zoo and pumpkin patches, there is no shortage of fall activities at Byrnside Branch Farm in Monroe County.
But though the 155-acre farm attracts upward of 10,000 visitors each fall, Dirk McCormick didn't set out to create one of southern West Virginia's premier fall attractions when he purchased it in the early 1980s.
"I figured I'd be a dairy farmer all my life," he said, explaining the land was already set up as a dairy farm when he bought it around the time his first daughter, Mary Beth, was born.
Life, however, had other plans.
It was roughly 20 years later when Dirk switched from dairy to vegetables, planting crops including potatoes, onions, corn and pumpkins.
He said it's likely he would have continued on that path had it not been for the youngest of his three children, Jake, whose birthday just so happened to fall not long after Halloween.
Middle child Becky said she remembers the gradual transition from Halloween-themed birthday parties to the 20-acre-scale corn mazes quite well.
“It started out very, very small and we never, ever had the intention of doing this,” she said. “My little brother’s birthday is in November, so he always had a Halloween-themed birthday party. Over the years we haunted the dining room, then another year my dad made a hay maze and we haunted it. Then the year after that we had a corn field in the front field where parking is now. Dad cut out the maze and (my brother’s) whole class came and we haunted it.
"Then it got to the point where people were just showing up wanting to go through the cornfield."
The family then began to leave out pumpkins with a money jar so people could pay if they took one.
"That all started when Jake was 8 or 9 and he's 27 now and we've just kept getting bigger and bigger," she said.
Attractions now include Lily's Corn Crib, a giant sandbox, named after Dirk's youngest granddaughter, filled with dried corn kernels, and Ava's Duck Rage, also named for a granddaughter, which uses hand-crank water pumps to spurt out water and propel small rubber ducks down a makeshift PVC pipe track.
Visitors can feed farm animals, including an 18-year-old longhorn steer named Hercules, tour the farm on a tractor, enjoy — or reserve — one of seven bonfires, purchase seasonal produce and flowers and take a trip through two corn mazes.
The farm usually features a "Pick Your Own Pumpkin Patch" but ran out the first weekend because of the drought.
“All of these we have now we purchased and that’s the very first year we’ve done that and that’s because of the drought," Becky said. "We just didn’t have anything come up, and what we did have come up looked terrible.”
Fortunately, the drought didn't affect the farm's 20-acre corn maze, which was designed by Jake and carefully crafted by several family members.
“We always say if you’re out there (in the corn maze) cussing somebody 'cause you can’t get out, you’re cussing Jake 'cause he made it,” Becky said.
Although it’s used for just over a month, Becky said planning for the event begins in May when they start planting pumpkins.
"We plant the corn in June and after all this is over, we pick the corn and that goes to the barn for the people who buy it for deer hunting or to feed cows," she said. "Then in November we have to decide if we need to plant a cover crop to reset the pH of the ground to be suitable for planting again next season.”
Not only does it take a year's worth of planning to decide where the crops go on a year-to-year basis, but the planning and maintaining of the corn maze is a whole other task on its own.
Dirk said they originally cut the path for the corn maze by hand using corn cutters but over the years have learned that a lawnmower can be used if the stalks are not too tall.
Once the cutting process begins, Dirk said there are a lot of things to look out for in order to create the correct balance of fun and challenge.
“You don’t want a lot of dead ends because that aggravates people and you don’t want to be out there doing the same pattern where you only make left turns to get out,” Dirk said. “You also don’t want the paths too close, especially the exits and the entrances; they’ll start seeing through it or they’ll hear the other people and they’ll cut a path through it and it will ruin it for the other people.
"People that come at the end are paying the same price and I don’t want them to feel like they’re cheated.”
McCormick said the maze can be especially challenging and exciting at night when people have only flashlights and glow sticks to guide them.
There is no admission fee to visit the farm, but it's $7 to go through the corn maze.
“I actually think we should be a little more expensive, but dad says, ‘No, I raised you girls and there were a lot of places I couldn’t take you girls because I couldn’t afford it and I don’t want that to be our farm ever,’” Becky said. “We also talked about entry fees and admission costs but Dad said, ‘Nope, if grandpa wants to come out and watch his kids play, we’re not going to charge him to come out and sit on my farm.’”
Dirk says the business offers up challenges, but it's something the family loves.
“It’s kind of like farming: If you didn’t like it, you wouldn’t do it because you’re not doing it solely for the money, but we also want it to pay for itself,” Dirk said. “As long as it pays the bills and it’s still fun – to me it’s part of farming and I’ve done it for so long. It’s just another enterprise for the farm to make itself profitable.”
Byrnside Branch Farm, open Friday from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m., Saturday from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. and Sunday from 1 p.m. to 10 p.m., is at 170 Byrnside Branch Road in Union.
For more information on pricing and events, visit Byrnside Branch Farm on Facebook.