Tracy Gangi of Tracy Gangi Photography loves to use the sunflowers at Ramseyer Farms in her work.

Cover crop or cover photo, sunflowers are finding a fit on more farms

By Brianna Gwirtz, OCJ field reporter

For use as cover crops, sunflowers have a robust root system allowing them to scavenge nutrients and they are also good for mycorrhizal fungi growth in the soil. The loftiest blooms around attract numerous beneficial insects and can lead to excellent honey production in nearby beehives as well. Their tall and strong stalks offer opportunities for vine plants in a cover crop cocktail to climb.

Dave Brandt in Fairfield County had a 2020 field of sunflowers planted in 30-inch rows after harvesting triticale as part of a cover crop mix. He harvested the sunflowers with the corn head. He also has beehives next to the field and has removed around 450 pounds of honey. Photo by Randall Reeder, OSU Extension.

While more farmers are finding a fit for advantages of sunflowers as a useful component of a cover crop blends in their fields, the crop has also seen a recent explosion in popularity with photographers and their subjects seeking to brighten up their Instagram accounts. A striking field full of sunflowers inevitably attracts people and agritourism destinations have taken notice of all the social media attention sunflowers get. Many have started selling photography passes as a source of farm income.

A popular fall destination for many families in northeastern Ohio is Ramseyer Farms, in rural Wooster. For $50, photographers book a time slot in Ramseyer’s sunflower field ahead of their opening day. Ramseyer Farms provides plenty of photo opportunities in their nine-acre field, complete with an antique tractor and other props throughout. With more than 20 varieties of sunflowers on the farm, the color variation adds plenty of contrast. The farm added some floral diversity in 2020 with a zinnia patch to add even more photo opportunities.

Tracy Gangi, a veteran photographer from Stow, Ohio, has returned to Ramseyer Farms for client photoshoots the last two years.

“I love the look of the field full of flowers,” Gangi said. “I think people like getting their photos in the sunflower field because it’s so unique. There’s really only one time a year that you have the opportunity.”

Gangi said family photo trends have shifted to more natural, outdoor scenes like those on the farm.

“My clients love it. It’s hard to go there and NOT have a good experience,” Gangi said. “Kids can run around and have fun and it doesn’t really feel like they’re getting family photos.”

Ramseyer Farms sold over 50 photography passes this year, welcoming 40 different photographers to the farm. Jenna Ramseyer, the farm’s operations manager, learned about sunflower fields as an attraction when she attended the Great Lakes Fruit, Vegetable and Farm Market Expo in 2016.

“We heard about other farms planting sunflower fields and having a lot of success with them, so we thought we might try it,” she said.

This year was their third season growing sunflowers. Ramseyer Farms hosted two weekends of Sunflower Days in mid- to late September. Visitors got to take a sunflower home, have access to all the farm’s activities and visit the food vendors.

This year, the pandemic limited admittance volume, but both weekends still sold out.

“I think this year especially, people want to get outside and see something cheerful, and what’s more cheerful than a whole field of bright, beautiful sunflowers?” Ramseyer said.

About 60 miles west of Wooster is the Pickwick Place, in Bucyrus, where the historic destination houses an event venue, farm market and vendor space. People come from all over the area to get locally grown fruits, vegetables and flowers offered in the market. 

Not many varieties of flowers are capable of reaching the heights sunflowers can.

“Being in a sunflower field almost feels like I am in Alice in Wonderland,” said Erin Jones, owner of Ginger Snapps Photography in Crestline, Ohio. “There’s just something so romantic and magical about being eye-level among the sunflowers.”

She offers 30-minute photo sessions within the sunflower field at the Pickwick Place.

“The sunflower sessions are great because they’re quick and easy for families,” Jones said.  “Sunflower sessions” have made a difference in her business, bringing in new clients each year she has offered them. Photography clients drive more than an hour just to get their magical moments captured.

“Sunflowers are bright and cheery, and the contrast for photos is stunning,” she said.

Hannah Stuckey, market manager at the Pickwick Place and co-owner of Ohio Flower Girls, noticed her customers’ preference for the uniquely happy blossoms about 3 years ago. They were one of the main reasons for launching her fresh-cut flower business.

“I personally have always loved sunflowers,” Stuckey said. “We sell sunflower items in the market and noticed people were drawn to them.”

After growing a few sunflowers to sell in the market, Stuckey took a leap of faith and decided to plant one acre for general public access in 2017. They planned a festival for families to come and enjoy the field, but the initial plan had a gray lining. The opening weekend was rainy and the flowers were not quite in bloom.

“It was amazing how many people came out, despite the weather,” Stuckey said. “After that big of a turn out, even with the circumstances, we knew we were on to something.”

Since then, Pickwick Place has hosted Sunflower Weekend annually in late August, a celebration of the end of the summer. Guests get a wagon ride back to the field to cut their own flowers to take home. They also have the option to enhance their arrangement by using the Ohio Flower Girls bouquet bar.

For 2020, Pickwick Place expanded the field to two acres. For $50, a photographer could access the field as often as they like after hours but still during the peak blooms.

“We started offering passes because we had so many people asking to take photos in the field. This year we sold about 20 passes,” Stuckey said. “For not advertising the passes very much, it has been a nice source of additional farm income.”

Despite — and maybe even because of — the challenges of 2020, people seem to be seeking a bit of extra sunshine in any way they can find it, whether in a cover crop or a cover photo.

“I think it’s a trend,” Stuckey said. “People are interested in capturing experiences and that’s our goal at the Pickwick Place: to offer a great family experience. Sunflowers just seem to be the perfect backdrop.”

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