Thanks to a fall fundraising event centered on hay, S.S. Dixon Primary School has iPads and other technology that many schools don’t.

The Pace, FL, school’s month-long Haystackular includes a hay slide, hay rides and many other activities. But the main attraction is a giant hay maze made with 4,000 small-square bales.

It’s promoted as the largest hay maze in northwestern Florida.

“Some people zip through it in 10 or 15 minutes, and every year we have people who get lost in there and we have to rescue them,” reports Tanya Westerkom, Haystackular coordinator.

Open to the public on weekends from mid-October to mid-November, and for weekday school trips during that period, the event attracts about 7,000 visitors. Ticket sales plus sponsorships sold to local merchants total about $50,000. Haystackular nets more than $30,000 per year.

“We’re trying to double those numbers,” says Westerkom. “To make more money, we have to get more people in.”

She hopes enhanced advertising and promotion, plus new attractions that include a nine-hole mini-golf course made from bales, will boost attendance at this year’s festival. It runs through Nov. 17 at the school, which has about 700 students from kindergarten through second grade.

Haystackular was started four years ago, replacing a day-long carnival that brought in about $7,000 per year. “It was a lot of work with little return,” remembers Westerkom, who then was president of the school’s Parent Teacher Organization. After reading about a hay maze at a Texas school, she figured building a bigger one and opening it to the public would generate more revenue than the carnival with roughly the same amount of effort.

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Westerkom buys 5,000 bales of straw and medium-quality hay from local growers, then resells it when the event ends. The hay is usually a mixture of bermudagrass, bahiagrass and other grass hays. Any type will suffice, except for one that’s popular in the area.

“We can’t use peanut hay because of allergies in the school,” she says.

The maze is designed by a local corrections officer and built by Santa Rosa County Jail inmates. Last year’s maze was shaped like a horse head; this year’s is a hexagon. A $5 ticket buys an unlimited number of trips through the maze, plus hay rides and access to a corn crawl – a shallow amount of grain penned in by bales for younger kids to play in.

Three trips down the hay slide, also built by prison inmates, costs $1. Kids climb a haystack and slide through a tunnel formed by two culverts donated by a local company.

Workers at Haystackular, all volunteers, include parents and high school students. In return for their help, the high schoolers earn points in a statewide college scholarship program.

Weekday field trips involve about 800 students from local schools. They solve math problems and do geocaching (finding hidden items using GPS) and compass exercises while going through the maze.

“It’s a fun field trip, but it also satisfies the common core (academic) standards that schools are required to use,” Westerkom says.

The 2010 maze won a Florida Department of Education parent involvement award. Last year’s maze helped school principal Debbie Anderson become Florida’s 2013 Innovative Technology Principal of the Year.

“She’s been able to upgrade technology in the school because of the funds raised directly from Haystackular,” says Westerkom.

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