Editor's Note: This story was printed in the Winter 2012 issue of Alumni News & Notes.
By Karen Leu ‘12, Communications Assistant
Bob Schmidt ’78 knows his work is worth it when he sees his crops grow and produce, when new calves are born in the pasture, and when smiling kids pick out their favorite pumpkins in the pumpkin patch.
“The amazing thing is that the farm means a lot to many people,” said Schmidt, owner of Maple Lane Farms in Greenback, Tenn. “For some people, coming to the farm has become a family tradition.”
From New Jersey to the humble beginnings of Maple Lane Farms to the demanding but rewarding “agri-tainment” business it is today, Schmidt has seen his share of change. As a child on a farm in New Jersey, Schmidt said he remembers “nothing but work” and therefore, he did not want agriculture to be his own career path. His father encouraged him to apply to many colleges, but when a family friend offered Schmidt a visit to Maryville College, he thought it was so beautiful that he never wanted to leave.
At Maryville, he started as a history major, but when D.W. Proffitt ’16, founder of Proffitt’s Department Store, spoke to the freshman class about the company’s business model, Schmidt was inspired to change his major to business administration and his minor to economics.
And in Schmidt’s junior year, he had another epiphany.
“Simply put, I just woke up one morning and realized that I didn’t want to have the same kind of career that my friends were going to have,” he said. “And I remembered that farming wasn’t so bad; I wanted to have a farm. Once I knew that, everything changed – I had a goal, a purpose. My grades improved from very low to Dean’s List.”
Schmidt’s independent study was titled “The Management and Marketing of Beef and Pork,” combining his business studies with his farming career goals.
Schmidt also decided to make East Tennessee his home. In 1985, a few years after he graduated, he started visiting farms for sale in the area. It didn’t take him long to settle on a 45-acre tract of rolling farmland just minutes from downtown Maryville. (Today, the farm encompasses 225 acres.)
“I walked around for only 15 minutes before I knew this was the place,” he said. “There must have been some divine intervention in getting this farm.”
For this cattle farmer, a Maryville College education has been instrumental in his success. Knowledge gained through the independent study project is still being utilized. And what other cattlemen call his “crazy way of thinking about things,” Schmidt has realized is the result of a liberal arts education.
“Maryville changed the way I think,” he said. “I focus on the solution rather than the problem, and that has helped me a lot.”
And farming isn’t without its challenges – rules and regulations, market uncertainty, weather. During the summer of 2011, for example, Maple Lane Farms got very little rain, so Schmidt’s crop of sunflowers did not do well.
With the wisdom and wit of a farmer, he addresses challenges with perspective and humor. (“One’s success – or creativity, perhaps – is directly proportional to how much money you owe,” he says.)
It was, after all, from an unfortunate circumstance that his agri-tainment business was born.
During the fall of 1992, a field full of pumpkins turned ripe too early – in September rather than October. However, a photographer from The Daily Times featured the field on the front page of the newspaper for “fall color” and soon, administrators at Maryville’s Fort Craig Elementary School were asking if their students could come to the pumpkin patch.
They did, and in 1999, Schmidt added a 10-acre corn maze. Subsequent years have seen the addition of hayrides, a haunted mansion, a country store and “county fair” rides for children.
In the spring, the farm has a pick-your-own strawberry patch and in the summer, Schmidt and his employees bring fresh local vegetables to the Maryville Farmers’ Market. He also raises cattle and crops such as sunflowers.
His corn maze, the first of its kind in Tennessee and the second in the Southeast, is different every year. Designs promote different organizations and businesses – everything from RC Cola and Moon Pies to Blount County’s United Way.
Schmidt estimates that between 40,000 and 50,000 visit his farm annually.
Developing and implementing the overall marketing and advertising strategy for the corn maze and pumpkin patch, he’s become known as “Farmer Bob” during the fall. He is a visible, hands-on manager of the farm, selling tickets and pumpkins and chatting with visitors.
“I can’t count the number of hours I put in every week,” he said. “It’s constant. During the season, you’re always working; however, I think of a ‘job’ as something you have to go away and do. Maybe you don’t like it, but then finally, you get to come home.
“This isn’t a job; it is home.”
And at home, he has his parents helping out.
“I couldn’t have accomplished what I’ve been able to accomplish without the help of Mom and Dad,” he said. “They do so much. My dad feeds the cows, and during the summer, my mother gathers the crops and gets them ready for harvest.
“We are a true family farm.”
Motivated by a vision of families visiting the farm and having a good time together, Schmidt has built a successful business, and he also become known as a leader in the agriculture industry. He was appointed by Gov. Don Sundquist to serve on the first Governor’s Council on Agriculture and Forestry. He has served as president of both the Blount County Cattlemen’s Association and Tennessee Cattlemen’s Association and has chaired various committees of the National Cattlemen’s Association.
Schmidt is a regular speaker on the topics of agri-tainment, agri-business and agri-tourism at conventions and conferences all over the United States.
“I am passionate about agriculture and committed to contributing to the success of agricultural growth throughout Tennessee,” he said.
Maryville College is ideally situated in Maryville, Tenn., between the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Knoxville, the state‘s third largest city. Founded in 1819, it is the 12th oldest institution of higher learning in the South and maintains an affiliation with the Presbyterian Church (USA). Known for its academic rigor and its focus on the liberal arts, Maryville is where students come to stretch their minds, stretch themselves and learn how to make a difference in the world. Total enrollment for the fall 2012 semester was 1,093.