The giant flowers are one of the most obvious—as well as the prettiest signs of mid-summer
Bright and cheery, sunflowers (Helianthus annuus) are the very essence of summer. Even though we see the sunflower used as a symbol of Ukraine, it is a truly North American plant, native to dry prairies from the Great Plains of the U.S. and Canada, south to Mexico. Spanish conquistadors introduced sunflowers to Europe in the 16th century, and Peter the Great is credited with bringing them to Russia, where, by the 18th century, they were grown in abundance for their oil.
Today sunflowers are an important oilseed crop worldwide, with Ukraine being the top producer and exporter of the oil, supplying 46% of the global market. Unfortunately, war has disrupted planting and transportation, and port blockades on the Black Sea have impacted shipping. If you wonder why your favorite chips have gone up in price lately, blame the war in Ukraine. The U.S. produces a relatively small amount of sunflower oil, with the Dakotas yielding the most.
Most commercial sunflower oil has a low oleic acid content of around 20%, but through selective breeding, varieties have been developed that bring the number up to a high of 80% oleic acid, making it heart healthy. High-oleic sunflower oil is lower in saturated fat than olive oil and has more vitamin E than any other oil. Its light color, neutral taste and high smoke point make it popular with chefs and snack food-makers. Did you know that right here in New Hampshire there are two farms producing high-quality, high-oleic sunflower oil? Both have Sunflower Festivals this summer, so you can visit
the farms, walk the fields full of blossoming flowers, buy a bouquet to take home, and pick up a bottle of fresh local sunflower oil.
Sunflowers and Horses
Carol and John Hutton of Coppal House Farm in Lee have been growing sunflowers for more than 15 years and have been working with draft horses since the 70s. True to their farm name—coppal means horse in Gaelic—they use horsepower along with tractors to work the land. After two or three years of growing sunflowers for oil, Carol found the flowers looked so beautiful in the field that she thought, “Why aren’t we sharing these?” Inspired by Buttonwood Farm in Griswold, Connecticut, they held their first Sunflower Festival eight years ago. This year, their Sunflower Festival will run from July 29 to August 6. Check their website for times and admission information.
On this true working farm, along with growing 20 acres of sunflowers, they also raise pigs, sheep, and chickens, selling their own lamb, pork, and free-range eggs at the farmstand. Nothing goes to waste here. The high-protein sunflower meal left over after the oil has been extracted is fed to the animals, and the stalks are tilled back into the soil. They grow 20 acres of corn along with grains such as wheat, oats, and barley that are fed to the sheep. They also have a land-share agreement with nearby Flag Hill Distillery and Winery to grow some of the rye and corn crops for their whiskey. John finds that crop rotation is important to the farm’s sustainability. “The more we rotate, the fewer inputs we need to add,” he explains. They own 78 acres and farm about 300 rented acres as well.
“Farming is a way of life, but it is also a business,” says John. “Land won’t stay open if farmers can’t make a living.” To keep their farm viable, they have tried a lot of different crops over the years. They started with canola as an oilseed crop, but the deer ate most of it, so they turned to sunflowers, which have been a big success. They also grow asparagus, squash, and specialty pumpkins, and make lots of hay. They have an egg CSA, and attend farmers markets in Portsmouth, Exeter, and Salem. Three days a week in the summer they host Community Roots Farm Camp, where kids can connect with nature while learning about animals and gardening.
In 2016, their sunflower oil won a prestigious Good Food Award. John travelled to San Francisco to receive the prize and give the oilseed category’s acceptance speech. However, he was remembered by most of the attendees as the horse guy. While you are at the farm, be sure to visit the impressive draft horses: Twiggy, Ice, Wyatt, and Charlie.
Enjoy strolling through the acres of tall blossoming sunflowers and check out the one-acre display garden featuring many types of ornamental sunflowers you might want to grow in your own garden. The family-friendly festival also includes an artisan crafts fair, food vendors, musicians, and mini-events such as storytime and kids’ crafts, photos with the horses, touch a tractor, and vintage car and truck day. Cut sunflowers and oil are available to purchase at the farmstand.
Make plans to return later in the season for their popular corn maze. “This is when we tell people to go get lost!” John says with a laugh.
Sunflowers Come to Concord
Greg Pollock and Amber Brouillette of Sunfox Farm have been growing sunflowers and holding their festival on 10 acres of rented land in Canterbury for the past four years, but now have moved to Concord. They have a long-term lease on 57 acres of river bottom land behind the post office on Loudon Road where they will be growing 20 acres of sunflowers. This will double their production of oil. Even though the flowers face east when they blossom, you should be able to see the plants as you go whizzing by on Rte. 93, making them a beautiful addition to the city. They will be growing cover crops to enrich the soil and making use of the remaining land to expand their business by growing pumpkins—some will be naked seeded varieties for snacks and some for jack-o-lanterns. They will add pumpkin seed oil to their culinary collection and are also growing specialty popcorn. Their products can be found at farmers markets in Concord and New Boston in New Hampshire, and Brookline and Somerville, Massachusetts, and are available at their online store: app.barn2door.com/sunfoxfarm.org/all.
This summer, Sunfox Farm’s Sunflower Bloom Festival will be held August 12 to 20 from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day. At this fun family outing, you can view the acres of tall sunflowers and cut some to bring home. Since parking in the fields is not allowed, you will be directed to park at nearby NHTI, where Sunfox will provide a free shuttle bus to the field. On the weekends there will be music, food trucks, artisans, and other vendors. Visit during the week to spend a quieter time among the flowers. Last year, the Cartier family of Laconia attended the festival for the first time and were very impressed. “We were jealous of other people’s pictures on Instagram and Facebook, so we had to see it for ourselves,” says Brad. “It is even better in person!” Janet Moffett of Bow brought her young granddaughter, Ella, and grandson Jameson to see the field of flowers. “Ella had a great time,” she says. “Jameson thought it would be boring, but he is having a lot of fun in the field. They liked picking their own flowers.”
Sunflower Bloom Dinner
Bring your sunflower experience to another level by attending a twilight dinner in the Sunfox field. Brouillette, a chef with a background in nutrition, has been doing farm-to-table dinners for years. During this summer’s festival she will hold two gourmet dinners each weekend. Reserve your seat at the table now for a seven-course evening meal among the flowers.
Since sunflowers are fast-growing annuals, they are perfect for areas with short growing seasons, like New Hampshire. Birds and other wildlife can be a problem though. “Deer, voles, chipmunks, turkeys—we got it all,” says John. Both farms have figured out how to time the ripening crop to avoid migrating blackbirds that can swoop in for a free meal as they pass through on their way south. Neither farm uses heat or chemicals to extract the oil. It is cold pressed, cold filtered and unrefined. Both farms use high-oleic, untreated, non-GMO seeds.
If you are concerned about the loss of important farmland to development, support your local farmers.
“We are all better off if there are a lot of small farms rather than a few big ones,” says John.