I live in a very picturesque agricultural landscape with the nearby Bonnechere River flowing through productive fields of corn, wheat, soybeans, canola and sunflowers. There have been large fields of sunflowers in my neighbourhood for many years. Two area farmers grow them every year for their birdseed business. I had 40 acres in one of my fields for two summers on land that I rented out.
I never saw anyone show much interest in the blossoming fields of glorious yellow heads. People were much more interested in the nearby fields of canola — a sea of tall yellow flowering plants. A few years ago, a woman living near a large field of blooming canola plants asked me why the farmer doesn’t spray the golden rods. They’re massive, she said. And she was surprised that they were out so early that summer.
People tell me they have no idea what the yellow plants are. Their guesses? Dandelions, mustard and golden rods.
Then on the last Sunday in July, I was driving on Hwy 60 a few miles from home when I saw lines of vehicles parked on both sides of the road. Hwy 60 is a busy road during the summer months, especially the weekends when people head to the lakes. It’s also the main road to Algonquin Park.
People were crossing the highway and my first thought was that there had been an accident — maybe a car was in the deep ditch. But that didn’t make sense. People are in a rush to get to where they’re going and that many don’t stop for an accident. Then I thought maybe it was a Mennonite family traveling in a horse-drawn buggy that got hit and folks were trying to help. As I got closer, I saw women with children in hand crossing the road. Then I knew it was the field of sunflowers that attracted all the attention. It was the weekend after a wild mob of selfie seekers in Hamilton clogged the roads there.
Never mind the wild parsnip plants in and along the ditch. No fear of the dreaded ticks. These tourists, mostly women in short pants and showing bare legs, were walking right through the weed-infested grassy ditch and climbing an old barbed-wire fence to get a close-up selfie of the sunflowers.
A few days later, I was driving the side road beside the plants and there was a sporty vehicle parked partly on the road. I slowed down and observed a leggy woman in shorts coming out of the ditch with a camera in hand. Now I’m not one to walk down a ditch that’s unknown to me for fear of twisting an ankle or maybe there’s a skunk in the grass. I worry about poison ivy. This brave young woman probably wore sandal-type footwear.
Why all the sudden interest in sunflowers?
It started at a bird seed farm near Hamilton on July 20. A sunflower grower thought he could make some extra money and charged $7.50 a person (kids under 12 free) to tour the 1.3-kilometre walking path through their sunflower field. They had set up portable toilets for the expected visitors.
The sunflower grower was soon backtracking on the idea, after it was swarmed by selfie-seeking visitors who trampled all over their crops and clogged up the nearby highway. What they hadn’t taken into consideration was social media — the snapped selfies were going viral.
“Everyone was laughing and having fun,” the grower told the Globe and Mail. “Then all of Toronto showed up.”
On Saturday, cars began rolling in hours before the farm was set to open. By noon, the area was flooded with sunflower seekers, some who had parked more than a kilometre away.
Police were soon called in to help manage the chaos. People, at times with strollers or children in tow, were crossing four lanes of traffic to get to the farm.
After the crowd swelled to an estimated 7,000 cars — far exceeding the space available in the farm’s 300-car parking lot — police asked the family to shut down the operation.
The amusing thing about this incident is that the family has been growing sunflowers since 1969. There was never much interest in the sunflowers until social media got involved and out came hordes of single-minded silly selfie sunflower seekers.
Maynard van der Galien is a Renfrew-area farmer and agricultural writer. He watched in amazement early one morning this spring when he saw a horse and buggy go by his farm.