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Sunflowers brighten county farmland

Published September 2009

By JoAnne C. Broadwater

Sunflowers were in full bloom for several weeks last September in farmer Zach Rose’s fields and his 600 acres of brilliant yellow beauties were stopping traffic and drawing sightseers to rolling patches of farmland in northern Harford and Baltimore counties.

But while he’s happy that visitors were captivated by the stunning golden display, Rose said he didn’t plant the sunflowers for their natural beauty.

“It’s an alternative crop to soybeans,” said the 32-year-old third generation farmer, of White Hall.  “We plant it behind the wheat and we sell it for birdseed.  It’s something different to get into just to diversify a little bit.  That way we don’t put all of our eggs in one basket.”

Other Harford county farmers have planted sunflowers but never on such a large scale, said John Sullivan, deputy chief of staff for the Harford county executive’s office and head of the division of agriculture.

“There are more sunflowers in Harford county than ever before,” Sullivan said.  “It’s exciting. I’ve seen people on the side of the road doing watercolors. It shines a bright positive light on agriculture.  It’s a wonderful public relations crop.  Who doesn’t like sunflowers?”

Rose, his parents and siblings–who run the 8,000-acre Clear Meadow Farm–raise corn, soybeans, wheat, barley and beef cattle.  They raise grain sorghum for a Pennsylvania company that sells birdseed and were asked a few years ago to try sunflowers as well.

The public reaction to the crop has been a pleasant byproduct for the family, said Rose and his wife, Rachael Rose, 26, whose infant son Zachary was born August 12.

“People really enjoy looking at them,” he said.  “And it gives the public a different view of agriculture. Maybe people will see the sunflowers and say ‘Look what the farmers are doing.  They’re not always holding up traffic.  They’re growing something nice for the public to look at.’ ”

The sunflowers are a shorter variety that stands at attention for about two weeks with faces turned as one toward the sunrise, Rose said.  Some visitors debated whether or not the flowers turn to follow the sunlight during the day.

When the Roses planted about 15 million seeds in July, they selected six fields that would provide great views of the sunflowers from the road.

Holly Pozecki was riding her bike at sunrise one morning when she came across a field of “endless” sunflowers.  The 36-year-old surgical equipment salesperson, who lives in Parkton, returned that afternoon with her sons, Casimir, 7, and Garik, 6.

“It was a pretty impressive sight when the sun was just hitting the sunflowers for the first time,” Pozecki said.  “It’s nice to see a farm being used for something like this.”

Sissy Liberatore picked up her 93-year-old mother, Emily Hackler, in Parkton and drove from her Monkton home to see the sunflowers at the insistence of her daughter.

“She said she had a bad day and she went the long way just so she could see them,” said Liberatore, 64.  “They make you feel warm.  They’re something that you just can’t put a word to.”

Catherine Holderby, 43, of Joppa, is a freelance photographer who stopped her car when she passed the field by chance.

“It’s breathtaking,” Holderby said. “Absolutely gorgeous.”

The sunflowers are dropping their heads to face the ground  now and their intense hue will soon fade to brown.  The flowers will dry naturally for the next few months before harvest in December.

The Roses will then use two special harvesting heads that cost $15,000 each to cut the flowers off the stalks.  The combine will thresh the seeds, which will be stored at the farm before shipping to Pennsylvania.

The crop produces about 1,000 pounds per acre and is valued at $110,000 before expenses, Rose said.   His family plans to plant sunflowers again next year, but the crop will be rotated to different fields in the area.

“If they charged admission to take pictures they’d be making a lot of money,” said Josh Miller, 28, of Sparks, who stopped to see the blooms one afternoon with his wife, Colleen Miller, 29.  “I just think it’s cool.  It’s not something you see everyday.”

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