Sunflower field in Janesville draws a crowd

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Sarah Zimmermann
August 8, 2015

JANESVILLE—Randy Hughes didn't expect his sunflowers to become so popular.

When crowds of people wanting to take photos of the field became too large, he had to set up a separate parking spot and rope boundary for people interested in the flowers.

The 75-acre field of organic sunflowers, located off Highway 51 near the Southern Wisconsin Regional Airport, has attracted attention from people driving by, said Hughes, owner of Blue Farm Corn Chips in Janesville.

Hughes decided to plant sunflowers after a friend in Green Bay who makes sunflower oil brought up the idea. After the sunflowers are harvested, Hughes will sell the seeds to his friend to be made into sunflower oil.

He plans on buying back some of the sunflower oil to help make the blue corn chips.

“It all comes full circle,” Hughes said.

This is Hughes' first year growing sunflowers. The year before, Hughes planted winter rye in that field.

Sunflowers are a difficult crop to grow from year to year, Hughes said. If the sunflowers harbor disease, the disease often comes back the following year, he said. Hughes plans to plant sunflowers only once every five years to avoid lingering diseases.

The mechanics of planting are important, too. If the seeds are planted too far apart, the flower heads grow too large, Hughes said. It is better for harvesting to have smaller heads, he said. When the sunflower heads grow too large, the seeds fall out easier, making it more difficult to harvest, he said.

Hughes planted his sunflower seeds 10 inches apart.

“You want a flower that is the size of your hand when you hold it out,” Hughes said.

Hughes expects to harvest the sunflowers sometime in late September or early October. To harvest, he will be using a row crop head on a John Deere combine. Harvesting the sunflowers should only take one day, he said.

Heliotropism is the motion of plant parts in response to the direction of the sun, which can be seen during the early stages of growth in sunflowers, Hughes said.

Immature sunflower buds track the sun as the flower grows. Once a sunflower has been pollinated, the flower head does not move, Hughes said. Sunflower heads do not move with the sun and generally all face east, Hughes said.

Once sunflowers begin to grow, they are very competitive plants, Hughes said. The flowers live well in sandy ground, similar to the soil at Hughes's field, and they handle drought well, he said.

A week ago, the sunflowers began to wilt. This is part of the natural life-cycle of sunflowers and has nothing to do with lack of rain, Hughes said. Wilting indicates the flower is continuing to mature, he said.

The number of acres of sunflowers harvested has declined in Wisconsin, according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Census of Agriculture. There were 2,404 acres of sunflowers harvested in Wisconsin in 2012, down from 3,722 acres in 2007.

Hughes said he will have to wait and see if his first foray into growing sunflowers is a complete success.

“I don't know if i will be smiling ear to ear or if I will now understand why not many people in Wisconsin grow sunflowers,” Hughes said.

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