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Virtual Sunflower Production

Monday, January 15, 2007
filed under: Utilization/Trade

The idea came to JoAnne Rademacher in the middle of the night, one of those light bulb moments when it’s tough to sleep until you get the thought down on paper.

She would start a web site where members could climb onto a virtual tractor and become a farmer for a season, growing sunflower along with the Rademachers at their Windyedge Farms near Berthold, N.D., just northwest of Minot. She envisioned it as a side business she could manage while watching a preschooler during the day, her granddaughter Brianna. And she had always dreamed about doing something that could educate the public about agriculture and N.D. culture.

In particular, Joanne wanted to reach classrooms and home schools with her project – to “give children the best education available about the real world of agriculture.” So she launched “Farming by the Yard,” in which she would sell virtual ownership in a 40-acre sunflower field grown by the Rademachers. The web site can be found at or

Joanne kept an online journal for members detailing the seeding, growth and harvest of the 40-acre sunflower crop parceled out for the “Farming by the Yard” project, as well as other aspects of agriculture, the Rademacher farm, and life in rural North Dakota.

The Rademachers grow row crops, small grains and raise beef cattle. Husband Daryl and son Darick farm separate land, but share labor and equipment. Another son, Wade, drives truck and helps out on the farm on weekends.

Kathy Flagen included “Farming by the Yard” in her curriculum for 3rd and 4th graders at East Fairview Elementary (Most of the town of Fairview is in Montana, although this school is on the N.D. side of town, in McKenzie County). Flagen and her students would check in with the Rademachers’ web site for updates every week, on what Flagen called “Farming Friday.”

“I’ve learned more about sunflowers than I thought I ever would,” says Flagen. Even though Fairview is a farming community, she says there are many facets of sunflower production and agriculture in general that students learned by studying “Farming by the Yard.”

“It’s detailed from germination through harvest, with good pictures and other web sites for more information,” Flagen says. “It’s something you don’t get out of a textbook.” – Tracy Sayler

“Farming by the Yard” Excerpts

Following are excerpts from Joanne Rademacher’s sunflower production journal from 2006, the entirety which was made available to “Farming by the Yard” members.

March 3 – Windyedge Farms has decided to plant NuSun Sunflowers for oilseed on our forty acres this year. We have chosen oilseed sunflowers because they fit into the continuing rotation of crops on this field…Our forty acres were planted to wheat in 2005 and corn in 2004.

April 12 – For those of you who are really new to farming - don't feel bad - I was too, 29 years ago. Born and raised in the city, my only exposure to farming was my grandparents' farm where we visited often…When I married Daryl and moved away from all I knew onto this farm with dairy and beef cows, grain and corn crops, I thought I'd been dropped on another planet. There was and still is so much to learn.

May 20 – Before seeding begins, we check all the systems on each machine to be sure they are in good condition for the job ahead. One of the parts replaced on the air seeder this spring was a sensor… Unfortunately, the person who sold us the new sensor gave us the wrong one. There was no way for Darick to know that when he installed it so when seeding began, the monitors would not work properly. It took several days of starting and stopping before a mechanic figured this out. In the mean time, we were going to start spraying for weeds. Another breakdown! A wheel bearing and seals went out on the tractor pulling the sprayer. It had to be trucked to a shop for repairs. That put us behind with the spraying.

June 4 – Yeah!!! It is time for the party - we have planted our sunflowers! Remember the delay we talked about because of the wrong sensor on the monitor in the tractor and repairs being made to the sprayer tractor? Those unforeseen things put us behind schedule by almost a week and we never made up the time because of further delays caused by rain. We do a lot of "would-a, could-a, and should-a" this time of year. Any machinery delays are always extra frustrating.

June 29 – Here we are, about 3½ weeks after planting our sunflowers. This plant was pulled from our field yesterday, the 28th. As you can see, it has outgrown the 12-inch ruler. We are hoping for some rain now. So far, we have had enough rain for all the crops seeded but with high winds and hot temperatures, the moisture evaporates fast. Our little fledglings will need a good drink again soon.

July 22 – Our sunflowers are well on their way to a great crop…(now here's the rest of the sentence on the tip of every farmer's tongue)…if we get rain. The plants are looking good, but a little stressed due to lack of moisture. We've had less than an inch of rain since all the HOT weather started with temperatures in the high nineties and even over 100 degrees.

August 1 – It rained this evening! I have been trying to figure out how to tell you all that our crop was looking droopy and sad in the continued hot, dry weather, when it finally rained a little. I grabbed the camera and headed into our field. I could almost hear those little darlings as they slurped and swallowed.

Sept 3 – Due to the drought conditions, the showy yellow sunbursts you viewed in my August 15 entry did not last long. Those beautiful yellow petals began to dry and drop shortly after I took the pictures…Today, the heads are beginning to fill with seeds and as they do, they become heavy and bend toward the ground. These flowers are now little oil wells, filling with that great nutritious NuSun sunflower oil.

Oct 23 – After a visit from Jack Frost, all signs of yellow and green are gone. There will be no more visible changes in our field. What we are waiting for now is the proper moisture content for harvest.

Oct 27 – HARVEST!!! The entire forty acres of seeds are now in the trucks, waiting to go to the elevator for sale. That is when we will know what our yield is. The scale ticket from the elevator will tell us the total pounds of seeds which we will divide by forty to get our yield.

Nov 10 – Our NuSun sunflower crop has been trucked to SunPrairie Grain elevator in Minot…Now we can see what our total yield per acre is. We harvested 40,720 pounds of seeds from our forty acres. That is 1,018 pounds per acre. After deductions for shrinkage and dockage, we have 892.8 pounds per acre to sell. What we always hope for is a yield of 1500 to 2,000 pounds per acre.

There are two major factors in the poor yield we got on our forty acres. First, and most significant, is the weather. As I mentioned earlier in the summer, the heat and drought conditions we experienced were devastating to our crop.

Second, the seed variety played a part. For example, when you buy seeds to plant your garden, there are many varieties of sweet corn seeds available. One may yield much better than another in your garden but you won't know until you plant and grow them, which ones will be best. It is the same with the sunflowers. We planted several varieties of NuSun Sunflower seeds and some did better than others.

Dec 18 – The last action taken on our forty acres this fall was with the disk. Darick worked the perimeter of the field and the low spots with the disk. Reasons for this are now up for debate. In the past, this practice has been done because the outside round and low spots are areas where we often see more weeds. Also, disking the outside round helps define the area of the field.

When we get rain, the low spots can fill up fast. When those areas are too wet in the spring, we can't get into them with the seeder and as they dry, the soil becomes hard. Running the disk over them in the fall breaks up that hard soil, gets rid of weeds, and makes the area more absorbent for moisture to seep in deeper so it is not as likely to turn into a slough. Another area up for disking would be where there is soil compaction from driving over one area too often. We try not to drive over our fields any more than absolutely necessary because the resulting soil compaction makes it difficult for the seeder to penetrate and for new plants to sprout.

New seeding equipment and methods require as little disruption of the soil as possible so the practice of fall disking may, for the most part, become obsolete.

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