MASARYKTOWN — Ted Kessel always keeps a photo of it on hand because he knows what's coming.
"You built a — a what? A corn maze?" people say. "What is that?"
And he shows the aerial photo — a butterfly shape cut out of 4 acres of corn.
Ted tells them that it's basically a labyrinth cut into a field of cornstalks. The fun is running through it, making choices at every turn and trying to find your way out. The Kessels found their love of them during trips up North and wanted to bring that retro, wholesome family atmosphere back home.
Ted's wife, Lisa, designed the butterfly — picked, she says, because of its symbolism for metamorphosis, which the Kessel family is undergoing as they become full-time farmers.
For the maze, the couple contacted a company to plot out each turn and twist and then Ted physically made it himself, breaking down cornstalks by using a homemade T-shaped contraption of 2-inch piping he calls Mr. T. It took Ted more than 36 hours, spread out over a few days.
"Whew," says Ted, 31, shaking his head and remembering the sweltering temperatures. He's lost 25 pounds since he and his wife bought these 19 acres of Masaryktown farmland in April.
This has been their dream for years. Lisa, also 31, grew up on a farm in Pasco County with her parents and grandparents and other relatives right there.
Ted also grew up in Pasco and, though not on a farm, his family was always gardening. They believe in being outside, feeling the sun, getting dirty, growing their food and being connected to it — knowing where it comes from and not just off a grocery shelf.
"Nothing tastes better than a fresh-picked strawberry," said Lisa, sitting at a picnic table with Ted and their children under the shade of several old oak trees Wednesday.
Lisa is petite and blond and likes driving a tractor and sweating in the sun. Ted is fair-skinned with freckles and has to continuously slather on sunblock. They have two children: T.J., 8, and Jessica, who is 6.
Ted has been building them a big tree house at the farm. Lisa loves working the land alongside her children. Jessica loves fresh green beans and T.J. will grab an ear of corn off the stalk and start munching on it, right there.
When they bought it, the land was a pasture, thick with hay and weeds, and the couple cleared it and planted their new life.
The Kessels believe in living organically, meaning no pesticides or anything to hurt the Earth or its creatures. They began a hydroponic garden, which is a way of growing produce in containers without soil but using mineral nutrients. Lisa says it is a way of growing produce that is environmentally friendly — less land, less water, less energy — and it tastes good, too.
They also created a traditional garden and called their place Sweetfields Farm (www.sweet fieldsfarm.com.) Soon, with the harvest coming in, they hope to make this a full-time job of selling organic produce and giving educational tours to groups. Lisa knows the other farmers in the area and tries to buy what her family needs from them or other, locally owned stores.
The Kessels are opening up their farm for the first time from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. today and Sunday in a fall festival. There will be food, vendors, produce, pumpkins and a maze of hay bales.
They plan on having the festival most weekends through the end of November. As the harvest comes in, Lisa hopes to be selling produce every day. The couple are also juggling their other jobs: Ted is a home builder and Lisa is a conservation consultant.
On Wednesday, her children played around the tree house, their laughter drifting across to the garden, where Lisa was. The sun was warm and the breeze cool and Lisa smiled.
"I'm so happy," she said, looking out at her new life.
Erin Sullivan can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 909-4609.