Does anyone remember the lyrics to this song from Guys and Dolls? “If I were a gate I’d be swinging; if I were a bell I’d be ringing.” That is exactly how I felt upon returning home to city life after a recent visit to a Sussex County N.J. sunflower field. The day could not have been more perfect with sunshine, deep blue skies, marshmallow fluff clouds and a gentle breeze. I feel compelled to head to the country-side several times each year to see and photograph the bright sunny flower faces. It is like an addiction, a ‘must do’ each summer when they bloom. A day trip to walk among the golden orbs has the effect of a week-long vacation for me. I savor it and let it fill me with the joy of summer and growth and continuity.
PICTURE THIS: Rows and rows of the huge, bold faces – all the same yet each one different. Some with the deep yellow tones, shadows, lines and discolorations of age; some bright and canary yellow at the peak of their youth; some looking like shy wallflowers with their petals not quite ready to show their faces to the world and some fully closed until just the right morning when the sun beckons them to open to life. Large, small, short or tall, each and every one contributes to an awesome late summer spectacle as thousands of blooms seem to turn the world into a golden, vibrant, happy place. The sunflowers though, as appealing as they are to see, are more than a petty face and there are many reasons why more and more New Jersey farmers are going for the gold by making them part of their summer crops.
About seven years ago, a few farmers began a cooperative venture with New Jersey Audubon to participate in a program named Support Agricultural Viability and the Environment, known as S.A.V.E. Simply put, the farmers agreed to plant trial acres of sunflowers to harvest the seeds and N.J. Audubon agreed to buy the seed from the farmers to sell as local sunflower birdseed. The farmers also agreed that for each five acres of sunflower fields, a specific amount of land would be dedicated as native plant habitat to promote wildlife and environment preservation. Most sunflower seeds used for bird food are harvested and shipped from the western states by train and one of the goals of the project was to reduce the carbon footprint caused by this transport. Another was to test the economic and environmental viability of sunflowers as a sustainable crop for local farmers. As it became apparent that the sunflower crops were indeed viable, the number of acres of sunflower plantings has increased. With more farmers joining in, there are currently 200 plus acres of farmland with sunflower crops in New Jersey. Here are ten excellent reasons why the farmers are going for the gold and why we as residents of this state have an interest in supporting them.
1. Growing our own local seed reduces carbon footprint by reducing the amount of cross-country transportation of the seeds.
2. Consumers benefit by knowing that the N.J. produced black-oil sunflower seed they buy is fresh and is benefiting the local community and environment.
3. The sale of the black-hulled seeds provides income to our own New Jersey farmers.
4. The leaves and stalks can be used as nutritious food for local livestock after the flower heads are harvested.
5. The sale of the sunflower seeds as well as the experimentation and learnings from the sunflower fields and preservation areas help to support the activities of New Jersey Audubon.
6. The cooperative sharing of information and resources between participating farmers is helping the farmers to learn best practices around sunflower and farm yield and crop rotation.
7. The sunflower fields are a haven for pollinators. Butterflies, bees, moths, bats and other insects feast on the available food which helps to sustain their population and also spreads the pollen to benefit other crops.
8. Sunflowers provide crop diversification for farmers as they are rotated with other vegetable and grain crops.
9. Sunflowers are known for their ability to cleanse and remediate soil.
10. Last but not least, the sunflowers help agri-tourism in New Jersey by drawing visitors to view the sunflower fields and bring them to local businesses and farm stands.
Sunflowers will be in bloom in some of the fields through mid to late September. Not all sunflower fields are part of the S.A.V.E. program. See below for the links to two S.A.V.E. farms that are currently offering sunflower visits and/or tours: Liberty Farm in Sandyston New Jersey which offers a sunflower maze and Donaldson’s Farm in Hackettstown. There is also a link to the New Jersey Audubon S.A.V.E. website with addition information about the program and the farmers who participate.
As an aside: The Liberty Farm fields are one example and a wonderful way for visitors to see the synergy between the sunflower fields and the field/meadow habitat preservation efforts. The sunflower fields are bordered by acres of shrubs, native wildflowers and grasses where visitors can walk the maze and trails of both areas.
So folks, take a ride and go for the gold along with the farmers. Enjoy a beautiful day in the country viewing the sunflowers, tasting the farm fresh-picked summer fruits and vegetables and learning more about the preservation efforts for our New Jersey wildlife and environment. It will hopefully ring some joyful bells for you as it does for me.