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Wisconsin ‘Sunflower Fest’

Monday, March 26, 2018
filed under: Utilization/Trade

Dale (Sunflower Man) and Shari (holding baby) Bergsbaken, along with family and employees, take a break during their Sunflower Fest.
       You can’t help but smile when you see a field of blooming sunflower. A family in northeastern Wisconsin has found a way to bring more smiles to the faces of people who visit their farm when their sunflower is blooming. It’s become a regular part of their summer, and a way to expand their birdseed business and diversify their farm. Jody Kerzman visited with Dale and Shari Bergsbaken of Bergsbaken Farms in Cecil, Wis.
 
Tell me a little history of Bergsbaken Farms.
       Bergsbaken Farms is a family operation. Shari and I, along with my brother, Lee, and his wife, BettyAnn, own the farm; and Lee's son in law, Jason, and his wife Lisa work on the farm with us. My dad started farming here in 1948, and we were mainly a dairy farm until about 11 years ago. At that time, after we sold the cattle, we wanted to create a niche market. So about 10 years ago, we started growing sunflower. We started out small; we only planted about 10 acres of sunflower that first year. Now we plant closer to 200 to 300 acres each year. We farm about 2,400 acres in total and grow several other crops, including corn, beans, wheat and sugarbeets as well as some other specialty crops such as safflower, sweet corn, pumpkins and popcorn.
 
Why sunflower? How does the crop fit into your rotation? 
       Like I said, we were looking for a crop to fit a niche. There are maybe two other sunflower producers here in northeastern Wisconsin that I know of (our farm is about 25 miles northwest of Green Bay). We grow strictly oil sunflower for birdseed. And sunflower really works well in our climate and soil. Mid-May is our ideal planting date. Generally, our soil is pretty dry, and when we plant on that soil we average about 2,500 lbs/ac. We also have some sandier soil, but we can plant sunflower there and still get good yields.
       We have learned some important lessons through trial and error. One thing we learned is we do need to rotate the sunflower, so generally our rotation is sunflower, corn, beans, corn and then sunflower. We’ve learned not to follow beans with sunflower because of the possibility of white mold. We’ve also learned—the hard way—that you can’t do sunflower two years in a row on the same field.
 
Tell me about the birdseed you sell. 
       There aren’t a lot of people growing sunflower where we live. I do know there is one producer who grows organic sunflower and another who grows sunflower and sells to a local mill. We decided we could do all the work ourselves. One thing that sets us apart is that our seeds never leave our farm until we sell them. We plant, harvest, bag and sell the seeds all ourselves. We built a new bin a year or so ago that has augers that go right into the shop where we bag our birdseed. All the birdseed is bagged by hand, but we do have equipment to get the seeds into the bagging area. We sell our black oil sunflower seeds in 30-lb and 50-lb bags.
       We harvest our sunflower in October and November. The first couple years we planted sunflower we only planted 10-30 acres so we would run out by January.  That’s why we decided to increase the amount we planted. Initially, our customer base was pretty close by, but now we sell to people from as far away as Madison and Milwaukee. We have one couple who buy 75 bags of birdseed twice a year from us, every year.
 
You also host a Sunflower Fest each year. Tell me more about that.
       When we started growing sunflower, we had people lined up to see them — at our home place and on the land we rent about 40 miles away. People were stopping to take photos of the sunflower fields when they were blooming. That’s when it clicked for us: We have these beautiful, blooming sunflower fields that people are lining up to see. We should capitalize on that!
       So in 2016 we hosted our first Sunflower Fest. We didn’t have any idea what to expect and we didn’t do a lot of advertising. We had some walking trails through the sunflower fields and a tractor pulling a wagon that people could ride in. We sold ice cream and soda, and a couple of vendors brought sunflower-related crafts to sell. We brought in approximately 1,500 people in two days, plus a lot of people who came after the actual festival.
       So in 2017 we decided to expand a little and do some advertising. We were in a local Fourth of July parade, and a local TV station did a story on our Sunflower Fest. We added more kids’ activities, including a bouncy house and a corn pit. We also served food. In 2017 we had over approximately 8,000 people visit in two days. We don’t charge admission, but ask that people leave a donation. We don’t do it for the money. People are just happy when they see sunflower. You see a big smile on their face. That’s why we wanted to share it with people. And we’ve had people come from all over, including Pennsylvania, Iowa — and even Paris, France! We have a guest book that people sign, and it’s always fun to see where people come from.  Some people tell us they plan their vacation around the Sunflower Fest. We get a lot of emails and Facebook messages from people wanting to know an exact date that the sunflower will be blooming. That’s impossible to predict, and of course it all depends on when we plant and how the weather cooperates. So we post it on our Facebook page as soon as we know. But they’re just excited to see the sunflower in bloom!
 
Are you doing advertising, PR, social media or grassroots efforts to promote your event and birdseed? If yes, what?
       We have a Facebook page — where you can learn more about Sunflower Fest. We also have information there about our birdseed and, of course, lots of great photos of our sunflower — many of which people have shared with us after attending Sunflower Fest.
 
What does the future hold for your business? New products? New strategies?
         Right now we just sell our birdseed at our farm. We’d like to market that a little more and maybe sell to a few regional markets. It would be great to get our birdseed into retail stores. If that happens, we would increase our acres. We’d also like to press the sunflower and make sunflower oil. We’d like to do safflower and even pumpkin oil, too. If we do that, and depending how it would take off, we could always increase our acres.    
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