The Topflite sunflowers have become something of an icon in Oamaru. Lots of visitors arrive in town asking where to find them and we’ve played host to many a photographer and film crew over the years — even moving one group on after they’d set up their tripods in the centre of the road…
Seeing as we’re gearing up to sow the next crop pretty soon, here’s some background on our little yellow heroes.
We originally grew sunflowers for oil in the 1960s but then moved to growing them for the bird clubs in 1974. People told us we were too far south for sunflowers to grow well but clearly we’ve proved them wrong! Our farms are in a dry area of North Otago and we get reasonably long and hot summers. It turns out that sunflowers grow well here.
October is when we sow the seeds. It’s pretty slow growing until December when the weather heats up. We usually get the first flower by New Year’s Day and by late January the flowers are at their most intense yellow. That’s the time of year to schedule your sunflower selfie!
People think sunflowers follow the sun but that’s not entirely true. When the flower is young it’ll tilt toward the sun but it’s more like someone lifting up their hands. They lean toward the sun so the left one will be higher, and then the right one, depending on where the sun is. It’s actually the result of one side of the stem elongating, followed by the other. This is how they absorb as much sunlight as possible.
We select our own seed each year by picking the plants that have the right attributes. We’re looking for plants with a single flower that curves and bends over. That’s so birds can’t get at it. We look for plants that aren’t too tall and with a full head of seed.
The selected plants are then harvested by hand and that seed is planted in a small block ready for the next year. After 40 years of doing this, we’ve got a pretty good selection going.
Harvest time is late March or early April. Once the back of the head and sunflowers become an intense yellow, they are defoliated. We do this because if left to dry naturally, the wild birds can get at the seed before us.
The seed dries off for two or three weeks before harvesting, which is done with a special fixture called a headsnatcher.
The moisture content at this point is about 20 – 30%. It’s dried in a granary until the moisture is reduced to 10%. The threshing process takes out sticks and broken seeds leaving nice shiny, striped seed to be stored in silos and eventually made into the delicious bird and small animal feed you know.