Tens of thousands of tourists make their way to the 40-acre sunflower field owned by Grinter Farms in rural Leavenworth County in September 2016. Music: "Ranz des Vaches" Kevin MacLeod / CC BY 3.0 Monty Davis The Kansas City Star
Tens of thousands of tourists make their way to the 40-acre sunflower field owned by Grinter Farms in rural Leavenworth County in September 2016. Music: "Ranz des Vaches" Kevin MacLeod / CC BY 3.0 Monty Davis The Kansas City Star

Living

Grinter Farms’ sunflower phenomenon is a tale of beauty, Kansas history

By David Frese

dfrese@kcstar.com

September 08, 2016 3:35 PM

Tonganoxie, Kan.

Stand in the middle of Grinter Farms’ 40-acre sunflower field and you’ll hear the abundant sounds of the outdoors: birds chirping, insects buzzing, humans sneezing.

Ah, nature. Allegra, Flonase, Claritin, Kleenex — they all could make a killing selling their wares out here.

Grinter Farms has been planting sunflowers for decades. What started as an attempt to create biofuel for the farm has now, 40 years later, transformed a local birdseed producer to an area phenomenon.

“This is not what I planned,” said Ted Grinter, who now operates the family farm between Tonganoxie and Lawrence. “I planned on raising sunflowers for birdseed — I didn’t plan on tourism. But it puts smiles on people’s faces.”

Over the last few years, visitors by the thousands from all over the world have found their way to the rural Leavenworth County sunflower patch. Some gather to take the perfect family photo. Some wander.

Last year, an estimated 30,000 people showed up, though there’s no way to confirm that figure. The Grinters don’t charge admission (but donations, for cut sunflowers or otherwise, are kindly accepted, thankyouverymuch).

Kansas Turnpike Authority figures from last year do show a 45 percent to 100 percent increase of drivers passing through the Tonganoxie exit on the weekends the flowers were in bloom.

And as incredible as that 30,000 number sounds, it’s possible the farm saw every bit of that this past weekend alone.

For several hours over Labor Day weekend, the traffic backed up for miles in three directions. Relatives were called in to park cars. Leavenworth County officers who had the day off were asked to come help direct traffic.

It got to the point where access to the farm and fields was temporarily shut down.

“When Tongie folks and friends are texting me photos of the backup on (the highway),” said Kris Grinter, Ted’s wife, “that’s when I thought, ‘Holy …’ 

The roads reopened shortly thereafter. And ever since, as long as there has been a hint of daylight, the farm has seen a steady inflow of sightseers, photographers, ramblers and gawkers.

Which naturally leads to the question: Why?

The answer is a strange confluence of botany, biology, iconography and technology.

The Kansas state flower has fascinated human beings since before there was a Kansas. The Kiowa word for the sunflower sounds something like “ho-son’a” and roughly translates as “looking at you,” because the plant’s mature flower heads face the same direction.

Kelly Kindscher, environmental studies professor at the University of Kansas (and native Kansan), says when the sunflower is young, its head tracks the sun as it grows. When the heads get big enough, they stay pointed toward the eastern horizon.

“By the time our commercial varieties are in full flower, they’re pointing east, and that’s when you can get those great photos of an entire field pointed toward you,” he said. “I can’t think of another species that does that.”

Time-lapse video of sunflowers at Grinter Farms

A Go Pro camera set on time lapse mode for about three hours in September 2016 captures the Grinter Farms sunflower field as people take selfies, bees swarm around the sunflowers, the sun casts shadows across the field and a few clouds pass through the sky. Music: "Hyperfun" Kevin MacLeod/CC BY 3.0

Monty Davis The Kansas City Star

This behavior serves an ecological purpose and an evolutionary advantage, according to a study published just last month in the journal Science. A flower facing the rising sun warms up earlier, giving off more scent and attracting more pollinators.

More common but still fascinating: What appears to be one flower actually isn’t.

The sunflowers that the Grinter family have planted for 40 years are a domesticated version of Helianthus annuus, the wild sunflowers you see along the highways of Kansas and Missouri.

On the heads of both varieties are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of tiny flowers, or florets. Each yellow petal is its own flower. And in the center of the head are many, many tiny flowers. The wild version will have numerous smaller heads, and its seed can find purchase in the rockiest of places.

“It’s very opportunistic,” said Mark Ungerer, associate professor of biology at Kansas State University, who studies sunflowers.

There are accounts of sunflowers lining the Santa Fe Trail and Oregon Trail as travelers voyaged westward from Independence by covered wagon and horseback.

The plant also is drought resistant (perfect for Kansas) but will grow to 12 to 20 feet tall under the right conditions.

And when they get big, they can start to annoy people.

“Someone will let one grow on their property and a neighbor will call and say, ‘Well, they’re letting a weed grow,’ ” said Dennis Patton, a horticulturist with the Johnson County Extension Office. “And the person who is growing it says, ‘No, I’m enjoying it — it’s a flower.’ 

It’s a problem that has vexed farmers and landowners for more than a century. When the Kansas Legislature declared the sunflower the state flower in 1903, it was less than a decade after it was declared a noxious weed.

That didn’t stop Sen. George P. Morehouse of Council Grove from waxing poetic in his proposal to name it the state flower. He wrote in his bill: “This flower has to all Kansans a historic symbolism which speaks of frontier days, winding trails, pathless prairies, and is full of the life and glory of the past, the pride of the present and richly emblematic of the majesty of a golden future.”

In a triumph of bipartisanship, the law passed both houses unanimously. From there, the symbol quickly took root.

A World War I-era sign for the Kansas Soldiers and Sailors Headquarters hangs from the ceiling at the Kansas Museum of History. On it: a painted sunflower and the words “Welcome at the ‘Sign of the Sunflower.’ 

Less welcoming: the sunflower-adorned “100 Percent American” ribbon used to recruit Kansans to the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s.

Curator Blair Tarr said the museum has probably “two drawers full” of sunflower memorabilia from former Kansas Gov. Alf Landon’s doomed presidential campaign against Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1936.

“I always understood that little sunflower badge of Landon’s was very popular and people kept asking for them,” Tarr said. “And some people took this as a sign — ‘We’re doing really well.’ And they thought they had a very good chance of winning the election. Those people were soon disappointed.

“That may not be completely true,” Tarr said, “but I like the story anyway.”

The tale may be tall, but the staggering popularity of the flower is real.

Walk around the Grinters’ sunflower field and ask folks why they came, and you get the usual superlatives. “Beautiful.” “Spectacular.” “Awesome.” But you can hear them in any number of languages. English, Spanish, Vietnamese, French, Russian.

“Very nice,” said Yu Zhen, as translated by her son Wei Tu of Overland Park. She was visiting from China.

Paige McGovern wanted to surprise her husband, Joe, for his birthday. The Iowa State University students took a weekend getaway to Kansas City, where Paige learned of the farm.

“I thought, ‘Wow, where in the world would we ever find a field full of sunflowers,’ ” she said. “I surprised him. It’s like a sea of sunshine.”

“A sea of sunshine,” Joe repeated. “I like that.”

Time and again, people said the sunflower photos on social media drew them to the fields.

Instagram, Twitter, Facebook — at least in the Leavenworth County area — all have been inundated with photos of folks with sunflowers. The “Rules of Engagement” for visitors that Kris Grinter posted on Facebook reached a quarter of a million people. And a video of Ted planting the sunflowers in July has been viewed 43,000 times.

Pre-sunrise scene from Grinter Farms this weekend. (before the big crowds showed up). pic.twitter.com/8sjElWWFTv

— Tasler Photo (@TaslerPhoto) September 6, 2016

A beautiful place. Glad I went early. Grinter Farm. #sunflowers #amazing #gorgeousday @fox4wx @KarliRitter #kansas pic.twitter.com/iskkQi928n

— People of Cowtown (@PeopleofCowtown) September 5, 2016

Traffic backups close down Grinter’s Sunflower Farm for day https://t.co/G7WJUVLGYB pic.twitter.com/NgiRD2xK1U

— The Journal-World (@LJWorld) September 5, 2016

In hindsight, watching all of the people mill about the farm the past few days, it seems ridiculous that less than a week before, Ted Grinter wondered aloud if anyone was coming out this year. He actually said the words, “I hope people show up.”

Ted estimates he was around 10 years old when the first crop went in. Even then he knew he was going to be a farmer.

“That’s what I grew up doing, being,” he said. “Not having a bunch of people telling me what to do. Not having to hear other people all the time. I can sweat. I can cuss. Dress how I want. If you forget to wear your belt, you’re all right. Except I forgot my pliers today, and I feel naked.”

The biofuel idea never panned out. Ted said once his dad found out he had to travel almost 400 miles west to Goodland to process the seed they decided to start bagging it and selling it for birdseed.

“Been doing that ever since,” he said.

But for a guy who likes the quiet and doesn’t like to be hassled by other folks, it seems ironic that Ted grows something that draws a greater number of people to his farm than the populations of most Kansas towns.

So why do it?

He looks out at the field, shrugs his shoulders and shakes his head under his floppy hat. His chin kind of furrows and his lips kind of purse and he says, “I just think they’re pretty.”

David Frese, 816-234-4463; @DavidFrese

If you go

Grinter Farms, 24154 Stillwell Road, is on U.S. 40 between Tonganoxie and Lawrence. From Kansas City, you can take Interstate 70 West and exit at the Tonganoxie exit or the East Lawrence exit. There is no admission, but donations are accepted. Visitors are discouraged if it’s rainy or muddy.

For updates, see Grinter Farms on Facebook.

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