Something odd is happening in Middlefield. There, in the middle of a huge orchard, is a maze in the shape of a tiger’s head. These days, mazes in fields are not uncommon, but they are usually cut into fields of corn. This one is made of sunflowers.
The orchard in question is Lyman Orchards, which has the distinction of not only hosting this amazing maze, but also being one of the oldest family-owned farms in the country—the 12th oldest business of any kind. The same family has been growing crops on this land for 277 years, and for 11 of those years, they have planted sunflowers on this spot, cut a maze into them, and opened it to the public. They have also been donating $1 of every admission fee to Connecticut Children’s Medical Center.
This August, they will pass a milestone, welcoming the 100,000th visitor to the sunflower maze, which also means passing the mark of $100,000 in donation—which means they give children happiness on both ends: going through the maze and getting the best possible care when they’re sick. Maddie Burt can speak to both parts of that equation, since she works at Lyman Orchards and is also a former patient at Connecticut Children’s.
Maddie Gets a New Neck
When she was born, her atlas—the topmost spinal vertebra—was malformed. The atlas is the platform that cradles the globe of the skull (thus the name), and it is supposed to have two bony wings on either side where muscles attach so you can move your head. But in Maddie’s case, one of those bony wings did not develop, which meant she was at risk of spinal damage. Maddie also had a Chiari malformation, in which the opening for the spinal cord at the base of
her skull sat a little more forward than normal, putting pressure on her spinal cord.
Her parents, Tammy and Tim, brought her to several specialists when she was 5 years old and all wanted to do immediate surgery to correct the problem. “Then we took her to Connecticut Children’s,” Tim says, “and Dr. Martin [Chief of Neurosurgery Jonathan Martin, MD] said he wanted to wait until something changed in her condition. She wasn’t experiencing any symptoms, so he thought it would be best not to rush into surgery, as long as she avoided excessively risky activities like gymnastics and monkey bars in the meantime.” That more thoughtful approach appealed to her parents, and Maddie became Dr. Martin’s patient. Then, in December, 2015, during her annual exam, Dr. Martin saw her condition had changed, and he recommended that surgery needed to be done soon. On St. Patrick’s Day, he built out the missing atlas structure using bone from one of Maddie’s ribs and then fused the top four vertebrae. “The care that she was given by Dr. Martin, his surgical team, and especially the nurses at Connecticut Children’s was simply amazing,” Tim says, standing in the middle of the sunflower maze. “And now she works here at the Apple Barrel market.”
A Field of Firsts
Lyman Orchards was one of the first farms to try a maze in a field of sunflowers, and it was not as simple as you might think. “Our first problem was that sunflowers would attract bees that might sting our visitors,” says John Lyman III, executive vice president and eighth-generation Lyman. “So we found a variety of sunflower that is sterile, which will not interest the bees. Then we planted the seeds in rows, as we usually do with crops. But the Utah-based maze consultants we work with came to look and told us that we had to tear it up and start over, because the plants would not be dense enough and visitors could see through them. So we sowed the seeds in one direction, then went over the field again in a direction perpendicular to the first, doubling the density. The maze now has 350,000 sunflower plants in it. The big advantage of a sunflower maze is that the plants are not that tall, and you can see the surrounding landscape, where in a corn maze, the plants are 10 feet tall.”
The maze itself is cut into the field by the maze consultants, each year with a different pattern. This year, the maze features a tiger’s face in a reference to the two new Amur tiger cubs born at Connecticut’s Beardsley Zoo, which is partnering with Lyman this season. To complete the tiger theme, PBS Kids’ character Daniel Tiger made an appearance on opening day, July 28.
A History of Innovation
The Beardsley Zoo connection is an example of the innovative business strategy that has kept the farm going for so long. “Our main customer base is in central Connecticut,” Lyman says, “and the Beardsley Zoo mostly draws from the shore and southern Connecticut. By partnering on this project, we each get exposure in a broader area and can expand our reach.”
That kind of thinking is also behind the farm’s other attractions, which include three golf courses (one designed by Robert Trent Jones and another by Gary Player), the Apple Barrel farm market where Maddie Burt works, a corn maze and pick-your-own operations for apples, peaches, strawberries, blueberries, pumpkins and more. In fact, Lyman’s was the first orchard to introduce the pick-your-own concept, back in 1966. “It’s all open-land-use,” Lyman says, “so it is still in keeping with the farm idea of using the land.”
That entrepreneurial spirit seems to run in the family: The day after John and Hope Lyman first bought 37 acres of land in 1741, Hope turned around and bought another 25 acres, in her own name, something all but unheard of in those days. And David Lyman II built the family homestead, co-founded the Metropolitan Washing Machine Company and brought the Air Line Railroad to Middlefield (this was an inland Boston-to-New York line, parts of which still exist in Metro-North’s New Haven Line, Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor, and several other passenger and freight lines).
You might suppose that the idea of living up to this long, unbroken chain of maintaining the family farm would intimidate each generation, but John Lyman III doesn’t see it that way. “History isn’t a burden, but a responsibility,” he says. “There’s a history of being able to persevere, and that helps us get through hard times. We’ve had to adjust over the years, and that helps keep things realistic. And there’s a history of innovation, too—not being afraid to try new things.”
If you want to try a new thing yourself, the sunflower maze is open until August 26 at Lyman Orchards, Middlefield, CT.