Alumni make it big in the agritourism industry
Fort Lewis College alumni Luke (Agricultural Business, ‘12) and Kristen Johnston (Business Administration, ‘15) bring one of America’s oldest autumn traditions back to the Four Corners: the corn maze.
Fort Lewis College alumni Luke (Agricultural Business, ‘12) and Kristen Johnston (Business Administration, ‘15) bring one of America’s oldest autumn traditions back to the Four Corners: the corn maze. It’s not just some fall carnival, though—it’s a fully operational farm called Jack-a-Lope Acres. With roaming cattle and towering stalks of corn, the husband and wife duo are capitalizing on the recent agritourism boom and reinvesting into the local economy.
The operation was conceptualized in 2020 when Kristen changed careers to farming following a decline in the natural gas industry. She joined her husband, who grew up working in the agricultural sector.
“We decided to do this a couple of years ago, and we wanted to make it unique,” Kristen said. “There are thousands of corn mazes in the U.S., but we wanted to put our own spin on it and incorporate local aspects.”
"I wanted to grow pumpkins; at first, Luke wanted to sell them wholesale. I thought about it some more, and then I told him, 'if we're going to do it, we're going big.' After that, I did a lot of research. I figured out what we needed to do, and here we are."
Built into a gentle hillside, the top of the ridge reveals an expansive view of the La Plata Mountains. The farm's location outclasses the natural beauty of any corn maze operation in the American Midwest. The most exciting part of Jack-a-Lope Acres is that it’s an alumni operation that supports local businesses.
Kristen and Luke decorated the farm with locally built farm machinery, supplied their gift shop with products from mom-and-pop businesses around the area, and hired farmhands from nearby communities. In a time when large corporations and instant shipping options reign supreme, Jack-a-Lope Acres reminds its visitors of a simpler way of life with its pastoral landscape and aged farm equipment.
“The corn maze is going to get a lot of excitement from the community,” Luke said. “We’re trying to build a good foundation and grow pumpkins while we’re at it.”
In part, their foundation at FLC helped the Johnstons realize Jack-a-Lope Acres. Luke stayed in contact with Beth LaShell, coordinator of the Old Fort for FLC, and has collaborated with her on sourcing local products.
“Luke was my advisee in 2012, and he was one of the last Agricultural Business majors,” LaShell said. “He’s always interested in supporting local growers through business. FLC taught him a lot about that—but more than that, he’s a born entrepreneur and hard worker.”
Luke agreed that FLC prepared them for some aspects of the job.
“I had a good agricultural basis already, but FLC had good educational opportunities,” said Luke.
Kristen had a different take on what FLC provided her.
“I think the social aspect of FLC helped prepare me the most. I grew up in a small town, and being at FLC, which had so many more people, definitely helped me with this project,” Kristen said. “It’s a social experience at Jack-a-Lope, and that’s what people expect when they come here.”
The Johnstons hope this social experience will appeal to more than just children and families. They’re offering a special college night for FLC students to attend. Starting October 6, FLC students can relax, mingle, carve pumpkins, and drink Jack-a-Lope Acres' apple pie slushies to their hearts’ content.
“We want to expand our audience, and the college community has never had something like this,” Kristen said. “If you are around people your own age, you can let loose and act like a kid yourself.”
It’s true: the facilities at Jack-a-Lope Acres could bring out anyone’s inner child. They offer hayrides, a 10-acre corn maze to get lost in, a massive Jumbo Jumper, a pick-your-own pumpkin patch, pneumatic potato cannons, fire pits for s’mores, farm animals, and even a majestic unicorn named Sugar. This is just a fraction of what the Johnstons do with the grounds.
“We’re farming hay, wheat, and pumpkins right now,” Kristen said. “On top of that, we raise cattle as well. Jack-a-Lope Acres is just 20 acres of what we sectioned off for entertainment.”
Now in their second year of operation, the Johnstons hope to keep expanding Jack-a-Lope Acres with new opportunities for autumnal festivities. It is the only farm in the Four Corners with a corn maze; the next closest option is located four hours away in Albuquerque.
“I hope it gets a lot of excitement from the community,” Luke said. “I think it will, and we’re going to get started up, get comfortable, and I know we’ll get traction.”
The Johnstons are thankful for their time at FLC and how it prepared them for this venture.
“Being in an environment full of educators that were stringent on deadlines and punctuality has been the basis of our business today,” Kristen said.
“We wouldn’t have the capacity to pull off a business of this scope without learning the importance of structure that we acquired from FLC.”
In addition to recognizing the power of their FLC education, the Johnstons are adamant about honoring their heritage as farmers in the Southwest.
“It’s not an amusement park,” Kristen said. “We don’t want to throw a banana boat ride. We’re committed to being an authentic, agriculture-based experience, and we also want to support local businesses and stick to tradition.”
With 12,000 visitors to Jack-a-Lope Acres last year, the Southwest community is embracing that agriculture-focused sentiment. This year, the Johnstons hope to see 20,000 visitors. That goal appears likely with the Johnstons’ Southwestern grit, business acumen, and FLC roots.