There’s gold in the Finger Lakes. And we are going to tell you where it is – in the very next sentence. The mother lode is buried in the hills just north of the town of Phelps. But there’s a catch – you can find it only in August.
That’s when a visual treasure of 700,000 sunflowers reveals itself by exploding into a brilliant golden-yellow galaxy that fills even the most jaded traveler with wonder and joy. But what may be a visual treasure to you is a cash crop to farmers John and Jan Frederick. Each year, they plant up to 30 acres of sunflowers that by mid-summer flow across the gentle swells of farmland north of Seneca Lake.
For many years, the sunflower fields of the Frederick farm have been my favorite summer destination in the Finger Lakes. When they reach peak color in mid-August, the sunflowers also reach their full height, averaging the size of college basketball point guards, with a few forwards and centers mixed in. They remain in peak condition for a week to 10 days.
Their human-like traits can be unsettling. If you stand on the berm of lower Stryker Road and face southwest you’ll find hundreds of thousands of sunflowers staring back. Too quiet for a rock crowd, they seem more like a congregation. But unlike a congregation, they are not waiting for a message. Instead, they are delivering it. And if you stand quietly, you’ll almost certainly hear it.
Jan and John have worked this land for 30 years. In 2000, at the suggestion of a friend, John planted his first crop of sunflowers, all of four acres. He liked how they looked. He liked how they sold. And he liked how they made him and others feel. He knew then he’d be growing them for years to come.
But neither he nor Jan knew then they’d end up celebrating the sunflowers. Over the years, they watched as shy visitors drifted to a stop in their dirt driveway or briefly stopped in the road to get a better look. Only artists setting up easels and photographers working from tripods got to know the sunflowers. Eventually, they decided to offer visitors a chance to enjoy them more by offering wagon rides through the sunflower fields.
About two weeks before full bloom, Jan begins to publicize upcoming weekend wagon rides by placing announcements on local radio programs and in area newspapers. Residents of senior citizen homes, daycare attendees and participants in nearby ARC programs are offered special weekday rides. Daughter Jamie puts together a small petting zoo of pygmy goats, chickens and her 4-H award-winning livestock.
John handles the wagon rides. At the appointed time, he sets up a short stepladder and assists people onto the wagon. As his 1974, 75-horsepower cobalt blue Ford tractor snuffles impatiently, John instructs folks on riding in a hay wagon, then climbs into the tractor cab and heads into the fields. Bumpy, invigorating and stimulating – the ride is all those and more. Sunflowers crowd in from all sides and seem to extend endlessly to the horizon. To extend your enjoyment, John frequently stops the tractor in the middle of the fields. He pokes his head through the back window of the cab and shouts out sunflower insights, lore and facts.
Here are some facts. A medium-sized sunflower head contains 1,500 to 2,000 seeds; a large head holds 3,000 to 4,000. The spiral arrangement of seeds, the most efficient way of maximizing the number of seeds that fit into a circle, is mathematically described as a Fibonacci number. In 2013, John planted 32 acres with sunflowers, using about 22,000 seeds per acre. One acre of sunflowers yields about 1,500 pounds of seeds. Last year’s crop added up to about 2 trillion seeds. You can almost hear the squirrels applauding.
Once pollinated, the sunflower heads start to nod downward, signaling the end of their glory days and the dwindling of visitors. Although the relentless and rigorous routine of farming faced them daily, even during peak blooming, the uplifting interludes of appreciative visitors lightened the load of a busy day. Not anymore.
Harvest follows in early November, after the seed heads and foliage brown and dry. When their moisture content falls to 12 percent, John fires up the combine and begins the harvest. Seeds from the Frederick fields are sold for birdseed; black-oil sunflower seeds can also be pressed for healthy sunflower oils or used in biodiesel fuels. Cardinals, blue jays, grosbeaks, finches, sparrows, tufted titmice, chickadees and mourning doves prefer sunflower seeds to any other winter nosh.
By the time you sit down to Thanksgiving dinner, the relentless gray clouds drifting in from Lake Ontario will have smothered the fallow fields. Were these fields really once a sea of shimmering yellow, or only a distant memory? To create a memory to sustain you through next winter, stop by this summer and see them for yourself.
by Carol and Derek Doeffinger