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Sunflower Stars in Agritourism

Saturday, August 14, 2021
filed under: News

Photo credit: Jody Kerzman
Farmers probably don’t think twice about the work they do; there are chores to do, and if they don’t get done, there won’t be a crop to harvest.
        But for people without an agriculture background, the whole process can be fascinating.  In fact, it’s a big reason for the recent spike in interest in agritourism.  Agritourism brings tourists to farms and ranches, giving them a chance to see first-hand the work and the process.  It can be an educational tool, providing producers an opportunity to teach people about farming and ranching.  It can also help growers diversify and can provide some supplemental income, something that in a drought year like 2021 can be especially beneficial.
        Here is a look at two projects being done in two different states, with a special emphasis on sunflower.
North Dakota Sunflower Map
         Sara Otte Coleman has a double interest in North Dakota’s agritourism industry.  She is the head of North Dakota’s tourism department, and her husband, Clark, farms and ranches on his family farm just outside Bismarck, N.D.  Clark is also the current chair of the National Sunflower Association.  Otte Coleman learned early in her career as state tourism director how interested out of staters are in North Dakota’s agriculture.
        “Not long after I started as state director, I picked up the editor of Midwest Living [magazine] in Fargo,” she recalls.  “It was during the Lewis and Clark bicentennial, and he was in North Dakota to tour the historic sites on the trail. I picked him up in Fargo, and as we headed west, I remember all he wanted to talk about was the agriculture scenery.  He asked me about the fields and the livestock we saw as we drove.  Luckily, I could answer his questions — and I realized then there is so much interest in the agricultural lands that make up our state.”
        Otte Coleman has never forgotten that trip, and it has shaped numerous campaigns her department has produced over the years.  In the past, North Dakota tourism worked with North Dakota State University Extension to develop agritourism trainings, and participants in a newly formed program at neighboring South Dakota State University recently stopped in North Dakota to pick up some tips.  Otte Coleman’s department works with the Ag Products Utilization Council and the North Dakota Development fund to help producers across the state apply for funds to help with different agritourism projects.  Those projects could be anything from farm tours to wedding barns and hunting lodges.
        But there’s something special about sunflower.  Every year, as early as January, Otte Coleman’s office starts getting calls from people around the country, wondering when they can find a sunflower field in bloom.
        “We get phone calls from people who want to know when the field will be blooming. They want to book their flights and maybe they want to propose in a blooming field of sunflower, or they’re planning a trip with their grandmother who has always loved sunflower. They want to know when and where,” Otte Coleman said.  “Of course, it’s tough to give people a specific date, because there are so many variables that determine when the fields will bloom.  But those kinds of calls helped us realize there is huge agritourism potential in our state, especially when it comes to sunflower.”
        In 2019, with help from the National Sunflower Association and North Dakota growers, North Dakota Tourism debuted the first-ever sunflower map.  The map was hosted on the tourism department’s website and shared on social media. That first year, the map featured 10 fields across North Dakota.  In 2020, the map grew to 20 producers. The 2021 version just went online, and features 17 growers, from Regent to Medina, Lakota to Tioga, and several places in between.
        “We have pretty good coverage across the state,” says Otte Coleman.  “The first year, the producers on the map were mostly NSA board members; but now we’ve expended to growers who aren’t on the board.  We've had people call and offer to have their fields listed.  They’ve heard about the map, and they know they’ve got a field that will be a good spot for photos, and so they volunteer to be on the list.
        “I think farmers are proud of their work.  There is great satisfaction in seeing a crop grow. I think producers want to share that, and what’s happier than a field of bright yellow smiling sunflower?”
        Otte Coleman’s staff updates the map weekly, so people can find up-to-date information about which stage fields are in. Several fields also feature mailboxes filled with complimentary sunflower seed packs.  Visitors can scan a QR code on the side of the mailbox, and that leads them to the sunflower map on the tourism website.
        “Agriculture and tourism are two of our state’s biggest industries, so it just makes sense to combine the two of them,” Otte Coleman explains.  “And, as a farm wife, I hope we can also educate people about the importance of agriculture. We want people to know where their food comes from, to see how hard producers work, to see how technology has advanced farming and how we use sustainable practices to care for the land.”
        You can check out the North Dakota sunflower map at best-places/let-amazing-sunflower-put-smile-your-face.
Schoolhouse Farms
Davis and Cole
Vaughn Davis (left), who worked around the globe as a chemical engineer, now operates Schoolhouse Farms with his business partner, Beth Curtis Cole. It’s located near the west central Ohio community of Rockford. Davis is a 7th generation farmer on the land.

        Vaughn Davis’ crash course in growing sunflower is paying off.  The Ohio chemical engineer-turned-farmer has made his family farm near Rockford a popular tourist destination.
        Back in 2016, Davis and his business partner, Beth Curtis Cole, began growing sunflower for birdseed.  He says the first couple of years were “total disasters,” but he never gave up.  He started with just two acres; this year, he planted more than 160 acres of sunflower. 
        Davis has taken agritourism to the next level.  He sells season passes to photographers, giving them unlimited access to his fields once they’re in full bloom. Schoolhouse Farms hosts regular dates for visitors to pick their own sunflower.  He just finished roasting his first batches of sunflower seeds (available in Cajun roasted and Maine sea salt), and this fall will start pressing his own sunflower oil.
            “We want to be involved in all aspects of the crop,” he says.
Ohio map in SF field
This year, Schoolhouse Farms is featuring a 23-acre walkable hydrological map of Ohio in an 80-acre field of sunflower.
For 2022, they plan to produce adjacent fields of sunflower and lavender
— thus providing for some exceptional photo opportunities for their many visitors.
And this year, the biggest idea yet: the 2021 Schoolhouse Farms In Bloom Festival will feature a 23-acre walkable, hydrological map of Ohio in an 80-acre field of sunflower. Visitors can explore nearly four miles of trails while learning about Ohio history.  Davis hopes they’ll learn a little about agriculture, too.
            “People are in awe of our sunflower fields every year.  When they see a carpet of yellow, they are just fascinated.  It’s not something you see every day, especially in Ohio.  We mostly grow corn and soybeans here, but there’s a big interest in sunflower.”
        At Schoolhouse Farms, visitors can purchase products grown right on the farm. Their products include birdseed, gourmet popcorn, confection sunflower, floral market sunflower, sunflower oil, heirloom cornmeal and grits, and distillation and brewing grains.
        “We offer products that we grow, and I think that's unique.  Not many farmers actually sell their products right on their farms.  It gives people a connection and an understanding of where their food come from.”
        Davis has plenty of new ideas he hopes will keep interest in Schoolhouse Farms high.  He’s hoping to start offering infused sunflower oils, made with sunflower and herbs grown on his farm.
        “We planted lavender this year because we think that will complement the sunflower going forward,” he explains. “And it’s a beautiful field of purple when it’s blooming.  From an agritourism standpoint, what’s more attractive than a blooming field of purple and yellow?  In 2022, the sunflower will be planted next to the lavender, so that will provide some beautiful photo opportunities.”
        Schoolhouse Farms products are available in select retail stores and farm markets in Ohio, Indiana, and Maine. You can also purchase products on their website,
          “I never dreamed when I was traveling the world, working as a chemical engineer, I’d one day be using those same skills to farm.  But I’m so thankful every day that I’m doing this now.” — Jody Kerzman
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