Fifty thousand acres of sunflowers burst into bloom each August, creating a golden spectacle in fields around Goodland, Kan. (pop. 4,948). The postcard-pretty crop is the pride of the self-proclaimed Sunflower City in the Sunflower State.
“People sit out there for hours and look at the flowers,” says sunflower grower Marcia Golden. Farmer Dave Schields sees people hop atop their cars to get a better view and take photos of his 3,000 acres of sunflowers north of town.
The yellow beauties—at their showiest for a couple of weeks in August and September—are a $150 million crop for farmers in Sherman County, where Goodland is the county seat. A giant reproduction of a famous sunflower painting by Vincent van Gogh towers 80 feet on a steel easel along U.S. Highway 24.
“This painting is a tribute to the sunflower industry, which is what Goodland is all about,” says Golden, who is vice president of Sunflowers USA, a group that raised $150,000 to commission the painting by Canadian artist Cameron Cross.
In 2000, Cross spent six weeks in Goodland as he transformed the county fair pavilion into an art studio and created the 24-foot-by-32-foot sunflower painting. Students at North Elementary School filmed the project for a documentary and even added their own brushstrokes to the bouquet.
Goodland spotlights its sunflower crop with a Sunflower Celebration each August. The festival includes talks by agronomists and seed dealers and a tour of local farms and test plots of seed varieties.
The wild sunflower is native to Kansas and gave the state its nickname; however, sunflowers weren’t commercially grown in northwest Kansas on a grand scale until the 1980s. That’s when the first processing plant, SunOpta, was built in Goodland and Mueller Grain Co. began buying sunflowers from local farmers who discovered that the hardy crop grows well on the hot, dry plains and fits into their crop rotation regime.
“In four years, off one piece of ground, a wheat farmer used to have two crops,” says Lynn Hoelting, general manager of Mueller Grain Co. and chairman of the High Plains Committee of the National Sunflower Association, “but by adding sunflowers, he can get three crops in four years.”
Today, thousands of acres of sunflowers are planted in Sherman County each spring and the harvest is hauled to three local processing plants each fall. Archer Daniels Midland Co. in Goodland buys sunflowers for crushing for cooking oil and birdseed, and Red River Commodities in nearby Colby (pop. 5,450) processes seeds for snacks and baking ingredients.
The local sunflower oil is used exclusively at Goodland Regional Medical Center for hospital fare—from fried chicken to chocolate cake.
“It has a light flavor and is stable for frying,” says Sarah Linton, the hospital’s director of nutrition services. “Everyone thinks it’s so exciting for the community to use a local product. It’s good for the local farmers.”
Cindy Bowman, whose heating and air conditioning business adjoins the field in town where the giant sunflower painting stands, says that visitors stop in almost daily to ask about the colossal artwork.
“It’s the best thing that Goodland ever did,” she says. “At night, it’s beautiful when it’s lit, especially in wintertime.”
In late summer, though, Bowman and other folks enjoy Mother Nature’s artwork: a vista of fields of 6-foot-tall sunflowers that paint the high plains a dazzling yellow.
“Aren’t they just gorgeous when they’re in bloom,” she says.