Let’s Tour Zumbrota’s Hemp Farm + Maze + Haunted House + Head Shop + Disc Golf Course
Willow's Keep Farm in Zumbrota has become an agritourism destination.
1:12 PM CDT on October 25, 2022
If you’ve traveled south along Highway 52 toward Rochester, you’ve noticed a turn-of-the-century dairy farm that stands out from the rest.
Among the eyeball-catching features on its 10 wind-whipped acres: The white hearse with a weed leaf emblazoned on its hood; the 10-foot marijuana leaf on the garage door; the waving CBD and delta-9 banners; the massive FRIGHT FARM mural; the food truck advertising CANNA-DISC GOLF; and, of course, the two acres of towering hemp plants that’ve been carved into a maze.
The multifaceted, weed-themed enterprise was cooked up by owner Ted Galaty, a no-nonsense farmer/entrepreneur with a love for cannabis education and theatrical horror. Right away, the owner and director of production company Rochester Horror knew the farm could host his legit-terrifying Halloween spectacle eight nights out of the year. But, before the land became a money-making playground for Galaty’s other passions, it was devoted to the country’s most ubiquitous crop.
“The first three years out at the farm, I was growing corn,” he says. “At the end of 2017, I was like: I gotta do something different. I came to the conclusion that corn is kind of boring; a hemp maze would be more educational.”
So Galaty planted two acres with a variety of grain hemp that’s used in protein powders, textiles, and automotive paneling. It doesn’t yield CBD, and it won’t get you high. It does grow high, however, resulting in an informational maze that reaches 12 feet above the ground, with those unmistakable green leaves blotting out the sun during summer months. When the maze comes down in the fall, the stalks are processed into walking sticks, mulch, and animal bedding. (Minnesota lacks the facilities for more refined hemp processing, he says.)
Throughout the maze, signs boasting the innumerable uses of hemp inform the folks winding through it.
“It’s really endless what this crop can do,” Galaty says with genuine admiration, citing the U.S. government’s World War II-era “Hemp for Victory” campaign. “We’ve grown hemp for 10,000 years."
He’s less fond of the regulatory landscape that popped after the 2018 Farm Bill. Through something of a loophole, that piece of legislation allowed for the commercial production of hemp, provided the plants register THC levels lower than .3%.
In Minnesota, Galaty says, that means a byzantine, inter-department patchwork of regulations devoted to monitoring the potency of crops. Should a hemp farmer’s plants test above that .3% threshold, for whatever reason, the state requires complete destruction or complicated remediation. Those rules have partially snuffed out the initial “green rush” that accompanied the green-lighting of CBD production. (For more on the waning boom, read Christopher Vondracek's recent Star Tribune deep-dive.)
“I don’t think CBD is a fad or a craze, because there are a lot of health benefits, but it was kind of like a gold rush–you could call it a green rush,” Galaty says. “When I started growing, there were 47 growers. Then it ballooned to about 550, now it’s probably around 300.”
CBD oil supply quickly outpaced demand, he says, and many rookie farmers became overwhelmed by regulatory realities and the hands-on care required to raise, harvest, and dry the crop. The nickel and diming for licensing and testing didn’t help, he adds.
“It’s really kind of stupid. If you’re a farmer, why are you going to grow it if you’re possibly going to have a record?” Galaty says. “I’m glad I did, because I’ve always been about agritourism.”
In the spring of 2019, he went all-in on hemp agritourism. The farmhouse that previously had been rented out was retrofitted into a head shop; the basement became a grow lab for Willow Keep Farm's proprietary CBD line. Earlier this year, Galaty considered adding another hemp maze to the mix, but ultimately decided to invest in a growing, stoner-friend activity.
“I grew up in southern California, and I actually grew up across the very first disc golf course in the country,” he says. “I thought: I wonder how many holes I could get in my field…”
Ultimately, 13 grassy fairways were forged into a thick field of hemp, creating a rough that can swallow discs whole. The themed holes hit the sweet spot between traditional disc golfing and miniature golf. Ya know, canna-disc golf.
While he doesn’t explicitly advertise or advocate the mind-altering allure of the property, Galaty acknowledges that 420-friendly folks do make the pilgrimage to pop gummies from the storefront and enjoy disc golfing, maze walking, and Halloween frights.
Minnesota’s recent quasi-legalization wasn’t a boon to business, he says. Galaty describes it as a promotional tool that’ll embolden “the marijuana mafia,” a term he uses for the state’s two deep-pocketed, politically connected medical marijuana companies, Goodness Growth and LeafLine Industries. In order to keep selling delta-8 products, Willow’s Keep recently acquired a sister farm in Wisconsin that’ll soon host its own hemp maze.
Right now, however, Galaty isn't dwelling on regulatory hurdles. He's busy concentrating on scaring the hell out of Fright Farm ticket buyers. (Guests have been known to wet themselves, the farm's shopkeep says.) The annual event attracts around 100 volunteers, including professional actors who invent their own demonic characters and costumes. There is a lights-on family friendly edition, Galaty says, and local nonprofit Pine Area People for the Arts gets a cut of the fright bucks.
And if they learn a little something about the humble hemp plant between shrieks? That's what it's all about.
"I understand the cannabinoid system," Galaty. "I understand how this plant can really feed you, heal you, clothe you, and shelter you.”
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