Growing sunflowers brighten farm woman’s life
Buchanan, Va. — A field of golden sunflowers has turned into a boost in income at the Beaver Dam Dairy in Botetourt County, Va., and a bright spot in the community for about 10 days each September.
Candace Monaghan, a fourth-generation farmer, is the driving force for a sunflower idea that has blossomed beyond her wildest imagination since she planted her first sunflower seeds in 2015 as an experiment.
Monaghan talked about her sunflowers in a phone conversation and e-mail following the third Beaver Dam Farm Sunflower Festival this year.
It attracted 12,000, visitors even though it had to be cut short because of the weather Sept. 9.
“In 2015 the farm planted 20 acres of black oil sunflower seeds purchased from the local Rockbridge co-op just to ‘see if they would grow’,” Monaghan said. “They were a favorite flower of farm owner Frank Preston Wickline III.
“The farm already had the corn planter needed to plant the seeds, so why not give it a try.”
The farm, founded in 1900, is a working dairy as it has been since 1927, so sunflowers had to fit in around the dairy schedule.
The farm is currently milking 105 Jersey and Holstein cows with the third and fourth generation of the family doing the work.
“The sunflowers had to be planted the first week of July due to the fact that the other farm crops had to be grown and harvested for the cattle,” Monaghan reported. “Well believe, it or not, those little seeds sure enough did sprout and grow and a short eight weeks later, in September, we had fields of gold!
“While in bloom that first year we sure did learn a lot! Mainly we learned that there aren’t too many sunflower fields around except for out west and that people love to take photos with them! That’s when an idea was sparked in my head.”
Those 20 acres of seeds led to a learning experience for Monaghan and her father.
“The funny thing about sunflowers is once they bloom you only have about 10 days of ‘perfect’ bloom time before they start to wilt,” she said. “So just as quickly as they bloomed, they then started to wilt and drop their heads. ‘What now?’ was the question myself and dad were asking one another.”
Their research led them to finding they could harvest the seed with their corn harvester and perhaps sell them as birdseed.
“I began to research sunflower seed harvesting, bagging and contacting potential buyers of the “locally grown “seed’, she said. “I had designed peel and stick labels,” the graphic designer said.
She had them printed to place on bags when they were sold. In December the seeds had reached the perfect nine percent moisture level for harvesting.
They used the corn head on the combine and got a yield of 15,000 pounds from the 20 acres.
They had the seeds cleaned, bagged and labeled and put on pallets for sale.
They also learned materials from screening the seeds could be used in animal feed for chickens, pigs and donkeys among other animals.
“I had secured a few local businesses to sell the seeds like Ikenberry Orchards, Rockingham and Rockbridge Co-ops and North West Hardware stores around the area, she said. “We sold out of the 2015 crop before we were able to plant the following year.
“We then realized that this would be a perfect opportunity to help diversify the farm and help provide income.”
They planted 30 acres of sunflowers in 2016 and before they were supposed to bloom Monaghan talked to her father about having a few visitors out to the farm to see the flowers and the possibility of calling it a festival.
She wanted to see what would happen. Coordinating the bloom time and the festival made things tricky.
The dates of the festival could not be announced many weeks before the event.
“I contacted local high school FFA’s to set up and serve food, borrowed a pull behind child’s wagon for rides and announced the ‘first annual Beaver Dam Farm Sunflower Festival’ on social media like Facebook and Instagram two weeks before the event.” She recalled. “That year we ended up with 1,600 people for our one-day event. And we were so excited.”
Since then the festival has grown and become her passion. This year, she had 42 vendors with hand-made crafts and food, hay rides, photo booths and farm merchandise and more.
Monaghan confessed that as all farmers know nothing comes easy, saying there is always a hurdle to overcome.
She said her two biggest challenges have been weather and unrealistic expectations from visitors who expect things to be perfect despite the weather. Despite this, she is enthusiastic about her festival.
“It is a wonderful experience to be able to introduce agriculture and now agritourist to so many smiling faces, some of which have come back year after year to help support us and watch us grow” she concluded. “We can’t make everyone happy, as I have learned, but what we have done and introduced to our community is priceless.”
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