The Degler family heritage includes teaching and farming.
So it makes sense that the family’s newest venture combines the two.
The Deglers are inviting the public to “Experience the Farm,” weekends from Friday through Sunday, Sept. 14 through Nov. 3. The attraction will include a corn maze and hay rides.
The Degler farm, at 9111 Audubon Road in Chanhassen, has been in the family for about 70 years. Over the decades, they’ve watched the suburbs grow around it — Chanhassen on the east and Chaska on the west.
When Ellen attended Southwest Minnesota State University in Marshall, she’d be asked where she was from.
“I grew up on a farm in Chanhassen,” she’d say, to which others would laugh, “Chanhassen’s a suburb!”
Ellen shrugged. “How do you explain that? We’re a farm in the city.”
Her father, Gayle Degler, a Carver County commissioner, was born and raised on the Chanhassen farm.
As an adult, Gayle taught for six years, returning to Chanhassen to help his father with the farm. Fortunately, Gayle and his wife, Lois, were able to buy the farm next door, where they raised four children, Beth, Todd, Wade and Ellen.
With 10 grandchildren under age 6, Lois happily admits that she has her hands full.
The Degler farm always sold pumpkins in the fall, going back to when Gayle and his older brother, Crae William, were kids.
When Gayle and Lois’ four children were youngsters, they used proceeds from the pumpkin sales to purchase fun extras like a foosball machine one year, a ping pong table another.
After the grandchildren grew up, Gayle’s mother, also named Lois, continued to live in the farmhouse and sell the pumpkins on the honor system. Lois died in January 2019 at age 91.
Last year, the family offered hay wagon rides along with the pumpkin sales. It was so well received, that Ellen and the boys suggested expanding the experience to include a corn maze.
Convincing Gayle was the easy part. Once he gave the go-ahead, the real work began.
Now the three siblings had to figure out what kind of corn maze to create. They could have bought a design to follow, but they balked at the cost. With an engineer and two math teachers in the family, they decided to give it a go.
The three admit it was a learning experience. They designed numerous maze sketches until they found a design they felt wasn’t too hard, yet not too easy. They’d done a children’s straw bale maze the previous year. “We didn’t want to make it too hard for the young kids, but they just blew right through it,” Todd remembered.
The corn maze for older kids and adults will be challenging, the Deglers feel, with enough dead ends and circular routes to make it fun.
The maze is a self-contained acre. “We’ll make sure to keep a count of how many go in so we don’t lose anybody,” Todd joked.
Typically, corn is planted in 30-inch rows. In planting a maze and ensuring enough density, they had to plant each row four times. Then, once the corn grows, they created the maze by pulling out the stalks when they reached six inches.
They also researched agritourism. Carver County has some good information about agritourism, Ellen said, and how to connect farming to the city kids who will be visiting.
“What we think is natural to us, having grown up on a farm, isn’t to city kids,” Ellen said.
“So part of what we like to do on the hayride is say, ‘Here’s a soybean,’ or ‘How big is an acre?’ ‘How many soybeans do you think are in our bin?’ It helps put the farm and what we do into perspective. Wade (a teacher) does an exercise with his classes on the volume of a pumpkin. They figure out the radius, how much water will fit in it. You can give kids worksheets, but once you can do an actual demonstration and they’re hands on, it makes learning math and science more fun.”
“I see that in my work at Eaton,” said Todd, who works as an engineer. “The skill set we’re always looking for at Eaton is hard to find. That’s why I love bringing kids to the farm; we’re trying to help kids learn.”
“We were all in 4-H,” Ellen said. “We learned how to problem-solve, to make a plan, and if it didn’t work out, switch it up and try again.”
Among the things to see on the farm is Todd’s handmade sawmill at the back of the barn. Nothing goes to waste on a farm, not even trees that blow down in a windstorm.
There’s plenty of fallen trees on the Degler property, and Todd, a woodworker, wanted to use the old timbers, many 2-3 feet thick, to make furniture. But first he’d have to saw them into boards. So he took some odds and ends from old machinery, some motorcycle tires and made a simple, but effective, sawmill.
One of the things he’s built from the farm’s timber is the wagon that visitors will ride on during the hayride. And the plank seats are covered with rag rugs made by Gayle’s mother.
“Whenever people came to buy pumpkins, they always brought their kids and were interested in the farm,” Ellen said. “They’d say, ‘The farm has been here forever. We always wondered what it looked like.’ People want to learn and experience the farm. When you’re on the hayride, you forget you’re in the city. This is just as entertaining as any other kind of amusement park or ride.”