Skelly’s Corn Maze is open for the 2018 season! Visit www.skellysfarmmarket.com
Tom and Cheryl Skelly are the founders of Skelly’s Farm Market.
Interview by Teresa Nguyen
Are you both from the area?
Cheryl: Yes! All our life, we’ve lived in Rock County. We grew up here. We both went to Parker High School. That’s where we met.
Tom: I grew up right here. My grandfather bought the farm in 1918 and moved up here. Before that, we were on a farm on Cemetery Road for about 70 years. They probably had hogs, dairy cattle, chickens and definitely horses.
Tell me about your family.
Cheryl: I grew up in Janesville, right near Parker High School, on a small, 40-acre farm. It was what you might call a hobby farm.
My dad worked at GM. His parents had the little farm which, back in their day, was enough to support a family. He continued helping them, even with his job at GM. He had a few dairy cows and then eventually transitioned into a few heads of beef cattle, and 40 acres to work. That was little of nothing compared to now.
I wasn’t a city girl, knew what it was like to live in the country and be around animals and I enjoyed that.
After we were married, we had 3 children. Joe is the oldest, he helps run the farm. Our daughter Megan lives near Baltimore, Maryland with her family. She works for the FDA. Scott and his family are involved with the Skelly farm, as well.
We get to see our daughter’s family quite often, so it’s not so hard with them living far away.
How did you meet at Parker?
Cheryl: We were in a class together, met each other and started dating. As they say, the rest is history!
What were your ambitions in high school? Did you dream of owning the farm?
Tom: Not in high school, because in high school, the Highway 11 bypass was scheduled to go right through our barn. My parents didn’t think there would be a future in farming for their kids. But, by 1976, the plan for the bypass was changed. So, during college, I decided to come back and farm.
Cheryl: We both went to UW-Madison. He came back home to the family farm and I came with him. We both graduated in the spring of ’77 and were married in October of ’77. We both wanted to be done with school before we got married.
I had a degree in what was then called Home Economics. Now it’s called Human Ecology or something like that. I taught for a while, and then started raising a family. I did a little substitute teaching back then, as well.
When you came back, were you growing crops at the time?
Tom: I was running crops and also milked cows here. The market barn we use today was our dairy barn. We milked cows until 2000.
How did the “Farm Market” concept get started?
Cheryl: When the kids got older, that’s when we started selling the produce. The kids had a little lemonade stand in our front yard and we sold a little sweet corn. They had a little sign, “Skelly Kids’ Sweetcorn.” The first year, they earned enough to go to Noah’s Ark for the day and they thought, “Wow, this is cool!”
Tom and I started thinking that perhaps this might be a way to put some money away for their college education. Our intention was to give up the sweet corn once they had all their money for college. That didn’t happen! (laughter)
The boys own the farm now. We’ve retired and we’re here for the moral support.
“It’s always a successful day when parents are carrying their kids out of here kicking and screaming.” ~ Scott Skelly
What was your first big project or expansion?
Cheryl: Adding more corn rows every year. As Joe got older and into high school, he was involved in FFA then.
Tom: He started doing other vegetables. He started growing his first pumpkins in high school. He bought a couple trucks and started running stands. He had one in Evansville to start with.
Cheryl: He was the instigator, really. He went on to the national level and won some prestigious awards. He was what was called a “Star Farmer.” That was printed in a story in the Janesville Gazette.
Tell me about the Corn Maze. How did that get started?
Cheryl: Little brother Scott was in Joe’s shadow all the time. But, it was Scott’s idea to start the corn maze. He was only nine years old when he did our first maze!
Tom: That was the year they had the big Wisconsin Corn Maze on the other side of town. So, he asked, “Can I put in a corn maze?” I said, “Okay, go for it!”
It was a half-acre. When you plant a maze, you have to plant in both directions. It makes it denser, so people won’t just walk down the rows. You can also cut a better design.
Cheryl: I taped together several pieces of graph paper. He sat at a table, drawing out the design on this paper. Then we enlarged it, counting rows. He planted it with the corn planter. Scott and I went out with the garden hoes to get it done.
We put some cutout scarecrows and things in there. The person who creates our signs is an amateur artist, Steve Everts. So, he made scarecrows and one of them had a Waldo head. So, that was the idea of the maze, “Where’s Waldo?” Scott even made a little map that we could hand out.
We had around 100 people at that first maze, even a couple of school groups. We were just blown away that so many people would come out to see this! We still didn’t have the little building, we were operating out of our garage. They were asking if we had a pumpkin patch.
What has been your most favorite corn maze in all the years?
Cheryl: When we were still not located on this farm, but near our house, he put in “Pirates of the Pumpkin Patch.” It was a cute maze design. The kids who came to see it came dressed in their pirate outfits.
I also think back to the first one, because Scott was so excited. And he was just a little boy.
Tom: That’s my favorite, too, the “Pirate” maze.
How has the technology changed how the corn maze is done?
Tom: Now he designs them on the computer and has a laptop mounted on his lawnmower and follows the screen as he drives around.
Cheryl: It’s like a computer game! We also have a friend who has a drone and he comes to do aerial photos. Scott used to hire a photographer for that job.
How has attendance grown for the maze?
Cheryl: Beyond what we could have imagined! Every year we say, “How did we come to this?”
Tom: My dad was alive when we did our first corn maze. I said, “We’re going to cut a path through the cornfield and people are going to come and pay to walk through it.” And do you know what his comment was?
“Who the hell would pay to walk through a cornfield?”
Cheryl: He thought maybe we were a little nuts! But, Tom always had the attitude that if the kids want to try something and it’s not going to hurt them, they should try it. He’d say, “Go for it. If it works, it works. If it doesn’t, try something else.” And it worked!
Tell me about the pumpkin patch.
Cheryl: We have acres and acres of pumpkins now. We started with a little small patch of pumpkins near our house and the kids would pick them. Well, they got picked clean in no time!
We’re to the point that where you walk through the sunflowers, that’s where our pumpkin patch will be. But they don’t grow there. That’s because you can’t grow pumpkins on the same patch of land year after year. They would get diseased.
That piece of land is prepared and the pumpkins, which are grown on another part of the farm, are hauled in and placed there. They are restocked, and restocked and restocked.
Tom: We have people come out and take them during the day, and the Pumpkin Fairies come at night to fill it up again.
Cheryl: I have an education background and when we first started the pumpkin patch I thought, “Yeah, I can do this.” Well, one of the school trip groups that came for the pumpkin patch came on a rainy day. We had about 30 kids sitting on the floor, and I was reading them a book because we couldn’t be outside.
That’s when I said, “Okay, if we’re going to keep doing this, we need a building.” That fall we put up a small building and operated out of that until 2005.
What was the evolution of the Gift Barn & Bakery?
Cheryl: We realized we had outgrown that smaller facility. By that time, we were no longer milking cows, so the larger barn was available for use. Joe knew that’s what he wanted to do.
Tom: We started planning in the spring of 2004, by the time we had the permits, zoning and all. We started all the work ourselves. We only had the winter to work on all of it. We spent two winters on it. We turned it from a very dismal old storage barn into what it is.
The ceiling and walls in there had 70 years of whitewash on them. That was a lot of sandblasting! We had to take the floor out with a jackhammer. We added the front porch the first winter. The second winter we added the whole back end on it; the bakery, restrooms, office and all that.
Was the bakery a new concept?
Tom: Actually, we started it at our old place, the building we had used for six years next to our home. We had a small kitchen down there.
Cheryl: Our customers gave us that idea. They said, “This is nice what you have here, but you need doughnuts! Like Edward’s!”
I had never heard of them, but we contacted the family and traveled to Poplar Grove, Illinois to visit Edward’s Apple Orchard. They were very open and generous, very hospitable. They showed us how to get into the doughnut business.
We went and bought a doughnut fryer and jumped in! We had our daughter working it and some young kids helping. Our daughter was the doughnut maker when she was still home.
When did you start to see the need for employees?
Cheryl: We started hiring back in the late 90’s already, hiring friends’ kids to sell at our stands.
Tom: We had high school kids help pick in the morning. Then we grew to the bakery help.
Cheryl: From strawberry season through the fall, June to October, we probably employ 50-60 people!
From where do you get your products in the gift barn?
Cheryl: I order many of the gifts from gift companies. The vegetables are ours. Some of the things, like peaches, get shipped in.
Tell me about the beautiful and fun playground. How did that come about?
Cheryl: Joe started that back before we were here on the farm. The first climbing design was a school bus, then the pirate ship. We took one apart that was called “The Castle.” That one didn’t survive the years.
Every two to three years Joe gets an idea for something new and that’s his winter project.
Tom: He can just scratch out something, buy lumber and start building.
Cheryl: Tom’s a carpenter, I’m a bit of an artist. But Joe has long surpassed what we ever taught him. He never studied carpentry. It’s all self-taught.
Tom: Between Joe, Scott and I we have 12 years of college, and none of us had any kind of a Tech Ed course!
Cheryl: The cutouts and characters are made by our artist friend, Steve Everts.
The playground is usually the highlight of the school visits. We offer a wagon ride, the pumpkin patch, we do “Pumpkin School” where they learn how pumpkins grow. We give them a mini-donut and a juice box, and they get to play on the playground!
How many roadside stands do you have now?
Tom: We do eight roadside stands in the area, plus the Janesville Farmer’s Market. The roadside stands are up seven days a week.
What are your winter months like?
Cheryl: Nice! (laughter)
Tom: We keep busy until the first part of December by the time you get the fields harvested and tilled. We have eight acres of strawberries and they have to be covered with corn stalks. The ground freezes and we start that. We put about six inches of corn stalks on the strawberries.
Then we move into the shop. We do machine repair and build playground equipment over the winter. It keeps us busy enough through winter.
What does your spring look like?
Tom: We start our tomatoes in April in the greenhouse, turn the heat on them in there. We seed things on and off. Usually, the first or second week of April we’re planting sweet corn already. A lot depends on the weather.
Cheryl: We open the first week of June with the strawberries and the gift shop.
What have been some of your more challenging times?
Tom: Last year we had too much rain! That was a challenge.
Cheryl: We have a creek that flows through here and it flooded up to the playground! We had water running over our bridges.
Tom: In August of 2011 I remember we had a LOT of rain.
Cheryl: Weather is every farmer’s biggest challenge. It’s out of our control.
Tom: About 12 years ago we put in irrigation so that if we get a dry spell, we can water. The problem is, the sweet corn is what draws people in. If you have everything else and not the sweet corn, you don’t have the customers. By being able to water, you can be sure to have business.
Is the Sunflower Patch your newest project?
Cheryl: Yes. It flew! When you try something, you don’t know if it’s going to fly or flop.
Tom: Joe and Scott thought of it together.
Cheryl: Joe had thought of it a year or two ago, but didn’t have the time to pursue it more. Then Scott and Laura heard about other farms around the country doing it.
We had this piece of land, again, and thought, “Let’s try it.” We didn’t know if they would come. But, they did! It was fun!
Scott and Laura thought of putting the wagon in there, too, so people could be up higher on a platform for more photos of the field. It’s worked well.
There will be a sunflower field next year again, God willing. And it may be bigger.
What are your other community involvements?
Cheryl: We are involved with, and kind of started, the comfort dogs through our church, through Lutheran Church Charities in Illinois. They have well over 100 dogs placed around the country now. They’ve had quite a bit of press, especially when there’s been a school shooting or tragic occurrence like the Las Vegas shooting.
On the more local level, we have a comfort dog named Mary. She is part of our church, St. Paul’s Lutheran church. Tom, myself and seven other people are trained to be her handlers and take her out into the community.
As of now, we take her out to schools, nursing homes, special events, like National Night Out. I lead up the ministry and people will contact us or call me. And then I schedule her visits. Interested people can visit our Facebook page.
This Saturday she will be at a funeral in Belvedere. We’ve been talking with the Rock County Sheriff’s Department and they think they’ll use her at some point in the future.
Having one dog is enough to care for. We have a husband and wife, who are trained handlers, who care for her in their home. Mary received over 2,000 hours of training before she was released to us.
They start training them at eight weeks of age. We were on a waiting list before we got her.
It’s a wonderful program! Fundraising is through church members and donations from the community. It’s a meaningful, enjoyable thing to do.
Tom: Additionally, out in the community, we give a lot of our excess corn to Caritas Food Pantry in Beloit. We supply food to two other pantries, as well.
Your business is so successful, what are your secrets?
Cheryl: God has blessed us. We never envisioned we would be doing this! We assumed Tom would milk into his 50s or 60s, until his body couldn’t take it anymore, that he would find a job elsewhere in town, like a lot of farmers do.
Instead, this basically fell into our lap. Like I said, it started as a kid’s project. So, we attribute a lot of our success, and the expansion of the business, to our boys! We would have never kept going like this. We would have been ready to wind down. It’s the boys who wanted to do this.
We envisioned we would sell sweet corn until Scott was out of college. But, here we are!
Tom: We would have never done this.
You have really made a name for yourselves in this community, right?
Cheryl: Well, we appreciate the customer and community support. Without customers, we wouldn’t be in business.
Tom: It’s our best advertising, word of mouth.
Cheryl: We actually do very little advertising anymore, except for some Facebook posts.
What have you enjoyed about the business over the years?
It’s been a fun ride … seeing where it goes and seeing what our boys do. I love seeing their creativity and their passion for it.
Tom: Watching the business grow.
Cheryl: I’ve enjoyed seeing the people come out and enjoy it, to hear families say how much they’ve enjoyed it.
I always wanted it to be a family-oriented business. We didn’t want it to be a scary place, no witches, no zombies … just fun. It’s more of a fall festival feel.
The boys agree with that, and a lot of people appreciate the family friendly atmosphere.
Scott says, “It’s always a successful day when parents are carrying their kids out of here kicking and screaming.”
What’s next for you?
Cheryl: We’ve retired, and we’re here for the fun of it. But there’s no way we could just totally walk away from it. It’s a part of our family.
We are going away for two weeks in September before the craziness starts.
Tom: But, if you’ve been around farmers, very few of them ever just retire and walk away. I had a friend who passed away this summer at age 89. He was still running produce stands!
What do you love about Rock County?
Cheryl: I love that it’s not a metropolis.
Tom: Janesville is big enough. And the whole Midwest … I love this. I have to have seasons. I’m not really comfortable with, “Oh yeah, it’s 110 degrees in summer, but it’s a dry heat.” And, “Boy, those mountains are pretty.” Yes but, it would be nice if they were green instead of brown.
Cheryl: There’s plenty to offer here. We absolutely love the Rotary Gardens. And we’ve grown up here.
We’ve traveled a lot, but this is where we want to be. We’re very happy.