Sunflowers prepare farm for organic future
BARRINGTON HILLS, Ill. - Fifty acres of sunflowers bloomed in northwest Barrington Hills in one August week to create a unique carpet of bright yellow.
But in addition to providing a vibrant visual along the village's country lanes, these sun-worshipping plants play a practical role in the conversion of the nearly 700-acre Barrington Hills Farm to purely organic.
Among the criteria for such certification is the soil must be found to be chemical-free -- and sunflowers are among the species that can help expedite that process, experts say.
J.R. Davis and his wife, Dawn, took control of the farm four years ago and have spent the last three working to purify the soil.
They see themselves carrying on the vision of the late Barbara MacArthur, who with her late husband, Alex, ran the Strathmore Organic Farm at the same location on Spring Creek Road in McHenry County. Barbara MacArthur, who died last year, was a passionate pioneer of organic farming, decades ahead of its rising popularity today.
But the land passed into other hands between the MacArthurs and the Davises, requiring work to restore its organic status.
Farm manager Russ Grollemond began working for Barbara MacArthur in the mid-'90s and now does the same job for the Davises.
He said he was trained in conventional farming techniques that use chemicals and are far less labor-intensive, but he learned everything he now practices in organic farming from Barbara MacArthur.
Grollemond was a quick convert to recognizing it as a healthier way of farming.
"It's more complicated than most people realize," he said. "You don't get a big yield and you're always fighting weeds."
And organic farms don't use genetically modified seeds that are lethal to insects, both helpful and harmful, he said.
In August, he knew he saw a lot more bees pollinating the sunflowers than occurs with conventionally farmed crops.
While organic farming makes large-scale cultivation less efficient, growing demand among consumers has opened new opportunities for smaller operators.
"It's becoming more and more popular because smaller farmers are recognizing it as a way to make money," Grollemond said.
For example, Dawn Davis, who is on the board of Brookfield Zoo, said she's in early talks to provide organic foods for some of the animals there.
But as much experience as Grollemond already has in organic farming, this was his first year raising sunflowers.
"They're pretty easy to grow," he said. "Easier than I thought they would be."
In addition to their striking color and size, young sunflowers are heliotropic -- meaning they turn to face the sun as they mature.
While larger fields exist in the western United States, Barrington Hills Farm's are now the largest in the Midwest, J.R. Davis said.
Once this year's crop has been harvested in October for its seeds -- used for everything from bird feed and snacks to cooking oil and medicinal purposes -- the growing season will end with planting clover and radishes to further improve the soil.
J.R. Davis said he knows what crops will be grown once Barrington Hills Farm is certified organic, but he can't yet reveal it.
In preparing the fields for that future, there was one more reason sunflowers were the perfect choice this year: "I've always loved sunflowers," Dawn Davis said with a laugh.