When most people think of Hondo, Texas, they typically think of three things: dove hunting, the last available grocery store when heading to the Frio River, and the South Texas Maize.
The South Texas Maize, a corn maze like no other, was started by the Graff family in 2001, and has continued to grow through a nationwide network of maze growers that the Graffs now call family. The corn maze isn’t all they are doing, though.
Conservation plays a pivotal role in the Graff Family Farm, located in Hondo. They incorporate the latest conservation practices and techniques, are good stewards of the land, and their diversification into the South Texas Maize has helped them grow into an annual attraction for many San Antonio and Austin area families. Last year, an estimated 55,000 people went through the maze, but that’s only a part of the working family farm.
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The Graff family farm is run by Ken and Laurie Graff, along with their son, Colin, and daughter, Justina. The ranch was first established by Ken’s great grandfather in 1872. He was one of the original Henri Castro’s colonists of the settlement of Castroville. Ken and Laurie’s two children are the sixth generation involved in the family business.
Ken farmed with his father and continued to farm through college. He started at Tarleton State University, but soon transferred to what is now known as Texas State University in San Marcos, so he would be closer to the farm and could continue to help farm. He met his wife, who was a marketing major at college, and she uses those skills to grow their business.
“Being a farmer in Medina County isn’t easy,” said Ken. “You usually have to have another job to fund your farming habit.”
Ken worked for Esper “K” Chandler who was a crop consultant and owner of the Texas Plant and Soil Laboratory in Edinburg and attributes many of the practices he uses today to that experience. Chandler was a leader in the fertilizer industry.
ON THE JOB TRAINING
“From Brownsville to Amarillo, I learned more about farming and fertility riding around with him than any Masters or Ph.D. program at any major Ag university,” said Ken.
In 1996, Ken and Laurie decided to start branching out into agritourism. They started directly marketing their beef as locally grown to nearby restaurants and meat markets. They also began ranch tours
They stopped raising row crops such as cotton, corn, and other grains, due to the high costs of harvesting. The Graffs decided to team up with San Antonio Hospitality Tours by offering evening entertainment at the ranch with a chuck wagon dinner, hay rides across the working cattle ranch and farm, stories by the fire, guitar playing and cowboy songs to make the experience as authentic as possible. In 2001, a couple visiting from Pennsylvania, sent an article with a thank you note showing the Graffs what some of the corn mazes looked like back east. They enlarged their maze with an ever expanding plan.
“Of course things never go as planned. It changed when everything was destroyed from a tornado on Oct. 12, 2001, but we rebuilt everything in 2002, and started over,” said Laurie. “It is still farming and we are dependent on the weather.”
Texas has been in a drought for the last decade. They had to find a better option to irrigate to insure a healthy maze.
“When we took over the ranch in 1995, we thought we were in a bad drought, but that was paradise compared to what we just came out of, so we were forced to change what we were doing because you can’t feed your way through a drought,” Laurie said. “We don’t know when we are going to get back into the cattle market after having to destock to a smaller herd after these past drought years.”
With the help of the USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), the Graffs were able to get technical and financial assistance through a Conservation Innovation Grant (CIG) to help install one of the first underground micro irrigation systems in Medina County. This system decreases water consumption by putting water at the root system, with minimal losses from evaporation, while also reducing erosion. This year they replaced their antiquated system with a new one, which will make the entire field more uniform, efficient, and productive.
In addition to irrigation, taking annual soil tests allows proper application of nutrients needed for the crops. They have reduced the need for inorganic fertilizer by using their own blend of organic compost tea, which is made by brewing composted material including molasses, water, and other natural products. This will reduce production costs and risk of runoff. If phosphorus is needed, it can only be applied by inorganic fertilizer. Conservation tillage methods include using a para plow, if needed, to break up a compacted subsoil layer and minimize soil surface disturbance. The system maintains soil structure while increasing organic matter with residue and improving soil water holding capacity.
“We have been working with our soil biology for 15 to 20 years. If you can harness the nitrogen in the air, you don’t have to worry about nitrogen, and we do this through managing microbes in the soil,” said Ken. “With this and using the para plow, we are keeping the soil healthy and productive while using different methods rather than traditional farming.”
MULTIPLE CONSERVATION PRACTICES
These methods are not only applied on the seven-acre maze but also to their rangeland, pastureland, and cropland of annual hay grazer. Their cattle operation is using cover crops with legumes, which can fix the nitrogen in the air to make it available to the plant. A rotational grazing system helps give every pasture extended rest from grazing throughout the year.
“Don’t believe all of the organi-phobes and chemical-phobes. When you have to pay the bank, there is an equation in the middle where you take the best of both worlds, put them together, and you’ll make something that no one else can match,” Ken said. “One of the highlights of my time with the soil lab was helping the Yanta’s in Medina County develop their nutrition program. K (Chandler) and I developed a plan for taking a fair production method and changing it up a bit to build one of the best hay operations in Texas.”
Working with the NRCS and staying proactive with farming and ranching techniques has helped the Graff Family Farm move forward with continued growth. Ken is currently working on a test plot with cover crops and annual hay grazer to see how the soil will change over time.
Colin Graff is now farming on his own and custom hay baling. “His philosophy is that he gets paid by how many bales he cuts and bales, so if the producer has more bales per acre, it is a win- win,” said Ken. “He is making some great hay by using these same principles by improving soil health.”
Justina has worked at the maze and the family farm since she can remember. She was recently accepted to Texas A&M University and plans to major in agriculture and perhaps continue to run the place with Colin when Ken and Laurie retire.
“When opening the corn maze and chuck wagon dinners, our intention was educating the public on our way of life,” said Laurie. “I think everyone who comes out gets the country life experience by feeding livestock, seeing the pigs run, and mainly unplugging from technology.”
By farming outside the box and making conservation their main priority, the Graff Family Farm will continue to operate and inspire others for generations to come.