Raj Sinha invites the
public to the sunflower maze he cuts
every summer at his
Sussex County farm.
Mark Kirby sometimes has to stop and marvel at the acres of dew-laden sunflowers undu- lating across his Hillsborough farm, their golden heads lifted
to the sun. “As farmers, we like to play in
the dirt and watch things grow,” he says.
“But looking at a whole field of bright yel-
low sunflowers, it’s an incredible sight,
even for us.”
Sixty miles north, in the Sussex Coun-
ty town of Augusta, farmer Raj Sinha ad-
mires his 70 acres of sun-kissed stalks. “I
walk the field and am always taking pic-
tures,” he admits.
Sown in the spring, sunflowers grow
by early fall into mature plants up to 7 feet
tall. Their heads, wide as sombreros, be-
come weighty with seeds and turn down-
ward like penitents. That doesn’t stop
birds from latching on with their claws
and hanging upside down, feasting on the
nutritious seeds. Bees, bats, moths and
other insects also feast on the plants and
beneficially spread their pollen.
For New Jersey farmers, sunflowers
have presented a new opportunity to diversify their crops. And thanks to farmers like Kirby and Sinha, who open their
fields to visitors on specific dates, the crop
contributes to Jersey agritourism.
New Jersey’s sunflower farms account
for just 1 percent of America’s $700 million sunflower industry. North and South
Dakota are the heartland for U.S. sunflower cultivation, representing about 75
percent of the crop. Globally, Russia and
Eastern Europe are big producers.
That’s a concern for environmentalists, who would prefer a source for the
seeds closer to the populous East Coast.
“There’s a high carbon footprint involved
in transporting the seeds for sale here,”
says John Cecil, vice president for stewardship at New Jersey Audubon’s Wattles
Stewardship Center in Port Murray.
To reduce our dependence on distant
farms, New Jersey Audubon, with sup-
port from the state Department of Agri-
culture, created a program called SAVE
(Support Agricultural Viability and the
Environment). Launched in 2008, SAVE
has so far recruited 14 New Jersey farm-
ers to grow sunflowers and harvest the
seeds. The program buys the crop from
the farmers and sells it as birdseed state-
wide. SAVE also supports the environ-
ment by establishing 1 acre of grassland
habitat for wild nesting birds for every 5
acres planted in sunflowers.
In a state with 735,000 acres of farm-
land, the 200-plus New Jersey acres cur-
rently devoted to sunflower production
seem like a tiny contribution—as small as
a sunflower seed, you might say. But mod-
est beginnings can lead to major effects.
Kirby has grown 14 to 28 acres of sunflowers for each of the last five years on
Derwood Farms, his 400-acre spread in
Somerset County. Though he still raises
corn, soybeans, wheat, oats, hay and beef
cattle, “we felt sunflowers had a lot of po-
“The sunflower views were just breathtaking. We wanted
to do something to share it.” —Raj Sinha