May Farms harvesting new cash crowds


AURORA | Life would have been much different on Gary May’s farm 100 years ago.

With the right kind of setup, the 400-acre farm east of Aurora could have easily sustained a family in the early 1900s. As the owner of the property, May could have figured out a way to eke out a living from the land. Sure, it would have taken a lot of work from a sizable crew of workers, but it could have worked.

“If we were having this interview 100 years ago and I had 12 kids, well, we probably could make ends meet. We’d have free labor,” May said as he drove an electric golf cart by rows of pepper plants on his property in Byers. “That doesn’t happen … As a business person, I can’t sustain a family on this small irrigation.”

Times have changed for farmers like May. With his relatively small tract of farmable land, May has had to find other ways to keep his business afloat. The landscape has changed since he first bought the property in 1976. Nowadays, a big stake of May’s business lies in “agritainment,” a buzzword that describes a whole new approach to drawing dollars to the farm.

He’s set up corn mazes and markets during the fall. A spacious events center on the property hosts weddings, dances and meetings. In the coming months, the farm will host 5Ks, field days, foam festivals and Riot Fest, a music festival featuring national acts like The Replacements, Iggy and the Stooges, Rancid and Public Enemy.

“I’m always looking at something new,” May said. “Lots of people in this region moved out here and wished they would have locked the gate. I say, ‘If I would have locked the gate behind me, you wouldn’t be here’ … Change, to me, is an adventure.”

In lieu of looking to boost yield and output to make ends meet, May has turned to attractions that seem a bit out of place for a traditional, family farm. It’s a push that’s only intensified following the success of last year’s “Dirty Girl” 5K.

At the end of June, May Farms will host the annual “Run For Your Lives” 5K run and obstacle race. The national event produced by Reed Street Productions will be a takeover of May’s farm by dozens of actors, crew and organizers. Runners will traverse the trails and fields at May Farms as they’re chased by actors dressed as brain-hungry zombies.

That’s not the only large-scale event planned for the property in the coming months. In July, the farm will host an Independence Day car show, a “Color Vibe” 5K and a firefighters’ muster. In September, May will push the envelope even further with the Riot Fest.

The rock, pop, hip-hop and alternative music festival kicked off in Chicago in 2005, and has since spread to locales including Brooklyn, New York; Dallas and Toronto. Acts like Elvis Costello & the Imposters, Imagine Dragons and Fishbone have all appeared at the festival. Founders started the festival with a do-it-yourself mission in mind, a scaled-back effort in the wake of growing, multi-day festivals like Coachella in California, Bonnaroo in Tennessee and South By Southwest in Texas.

That mission has remained a constant part of the festival, and it’s part of what appealed to May in agreeing to host the event.

“We’re building a future, building a reputation,” May said. “We’ve been trying sell this farm as a festival site for a long time with the agritainment idea. We looked at different festival concepts and what made things work. We looked at how big is too big?”

Events like Riot Fest, the Zombie Crawl and the Color Vibe 5K all seemed fitting for the size and scope of May’s farm. They’re the type of attractions that could easily draw thousands, but ones that won’t strain the capacity of the farm’s 400 acres. The attractions also carry enough currency in terms of tourism to garner the attention of Visit Aurora, the city’s tourism promotion arm. Officials from the organization have included May Farms in their pitches about the wealth of attractions and events in Aurora.

“We’ve been working with (May), because the things like the Zombie Run and the Riot Fest attract out-of-town visitors,” said Visit Aurora President and CEO Gary Wheat. “It’s one of those things where there’s not a lot of hotels out there, not a lot of restaurants. We market for those people to stay in Aurora.”

Considering the fact that the farm is a 30-minute drive from Aurora’s main drag, it allows Wheat and the rest of city’s marketers to appeal to tourists who may want to get away from the urban attractions. It’s familiar territory for Wheat, who started his career promoting agritainment events in Iowa and Indiana. Even so, the menu of events coming up in Byers has made Wheat search for new sales pitches.

“If you’d asked me 10 years ago, ‘let’s do a Zombie Run,’ I wouldn’t have known what you were talking about,” Wheat said. “This is a new spin on agritainment.”

Just like all new trends, the shift in agritainment may need some time to properly take hold. May, who still considers himself a farmer first, is ready to be patient and let the word spread about the zombies, the runners and the hip rock bands regularly featured on his property.

“I’ve made it clear with all of these events that they have to do it for three years,” May said. “Any promotion person will tell you, you don’t just have one year and make a decision on whether it’s going to work.”


Reach reporter Adam Goldstein at 720-449-9707 or [email protected]