Honoring vets one sunflower at a time at Kelley Country Creamery

Colleen Kottke
Wisconsin State Farmer

FOND DU LAC - For the past nine summers, customers have been flocking to Kelley Country Creamery for homemade ice cream made from the milk of the family's dairy herd grazing in a nearby pasture.

Karen Kelley says her one acre field of sunflowers have delighted her customers and served as a fundraiser Old Glory Honor Flights for local veterans.

This summer Tim and Karen Kelley have planted a feast for the eyes, a one-acre plot of sunflowers. While the sunny blossoms are enjoyed by customers and local bees alike, sales of the plants will help Wisconsin veterans travel to the nation's capitol.

Bouquets of 5 sunflowers will be given in exchange for a $10 donation to Old Glory Honor Flight, an all-volunteer organization that regularly organizes flights for veterans to Washington D.C.

Karen Kelley said the idea came from friends back east who plant over 14 acres of sunflowers with the donations for the flowers benefiting the Make-A-Wish Foundation of Connecticut.

Buckets of sunflower bouquets await customers at Kelley Country Creamery south of Fond du Lac. Flower donation proceeds will benefit Old Glory Honor Flights for veterans.

"I've always wanted to do something for the honor flights so we decided to do just an acre to see how it turns out," said Kelley, adding that it was a joint effort between the family's farmstead, Oak Lawn Farm, and their ice cream shop, Kelley Country Creamery.

Using a corn planter, the Kelley's planted 30,000 sunflowers seeds on June 4, following a wet spring. The plan was for the four different varieties to mature within 60 days and blossom within a 2-week window of each other. Unknown to the Kelley's at planting time, one of the varieties has a 90-day maturity date.

"We wanted to make this a two week event and it's turning out longer, but that's okay because it brings more people out who get to enjoy the blossoms longer," Kelley said.

Over 30,000 sunflower blooms have attracted a loyal following of pollinators in the one acre plot behind Kelley Country Creamery. Flower donation proceeds will benefit Old Glory Honor Flights for veterans.

Employees began cutting sunflowers the last week of July and Kelley expects the blooms to continue for a while longer.

The sunny blooms are resonating well with customers who are traveling from near and far to take in the added beauty to the rural scene. Many walk around the field admiring the blooms and mugging for the camera with the wooden cutouts fashioned by daughter, Ami Leistikow. Kelley says some high school students have even had their senior pictures taken among the blooms.

"Having the sunflowers has been fun for both the farm and the creamery. And it's a real eye-opener for people to see as fields of sunflowers aren't as common as they once were," she said. "But they're really excited about what we're growing them for."

Oak Lawn Farm, a farmstead that has been in the Kelley family for over 150 years serves as the backdrop of this field of sunflowers. Flower donation proceeds will benefit Old Glory Honor Flights for veterans.

Kelley says that veterans hold a special place in her heart as her late father was a veteran.

"So many people that I meet in this business happen to be veterans and they're the nicest, most humble people you would ever want to meet," Kelley said. "These honor flights provide them with the opportunity to be with other veterans and to receive that appreciation for their service and sacrifice that many never received."

Kelley recalls a conversation she had with a Vietnam veteran during the EAA, who struggled with traveling to Washington D.C. to visit the Vietnam Veterans Wall.

"He said the visit had changed him and made things better," Kelley said. "I think it was the closure he needed and being around other Vietnam veterans helped him to realize what they all did wasn't in vain."

In addition to flying veterans out to the nation's capitol on a one-day whirlwind visit, the organization is also raising funds to help provide a group of Vietnam veterans from northeast Wisconsin the chance early next year to return to the country where they fought five decades ago - Vietnam.

So far people have purchased nearly 300 bundles of sunflowers. Visitors can also purchase customized honor flight T-shirts as well. Kelley says that 100% of the proceeds from flower donations and sales of the shirts will go directly to supporting Old Glory Honor Flights.

Kelley says her family owes a great deal to veterans for their present station in life.

"You see so many countries where people are not allowed to own businesses, especially women who are so limited to what they can do in society," she said. "Because of them and what they did for us, my husband and I, and our children are able to be a part of this business."

Bouquets can be purchased on weekends from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. (while supplies last) at Kelley Country Creamery, N5215 County B, Fond du Lac, WI. For more information about Old Glory Honor Flights visit www.oldgloryhonorflight.org.