Ted Grinter has his 40 acres of sunflowers planted. All he needs now is some sunshine, a little rain and a solution for the thousands of cars that might show up when the flowers start to bloom.
In recent weeks, officials from Leavenworth County, the Kansas Department of Transportation and other state and area organizations have been prepping for a possible repeat of Leavenworth County’s great sunflower traffic jam of Labor Day 2016.
“It was a train wreck last year,” said Leavenworth County Commissioner Doug Smith.
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Thousands of sunflower-seeking tourists last September clogged roads in nearly every direction on their way to the farm, located midway between Lawrence and Tonganoxie on Kansas 24/40 highway in Leavenworth County.
The snarled-up two-lane blacktop couldn’t accommodate emergency vehicles. People who lived in the area couldn’t get out of their driveways. And it wasn’t just the state highway. Gravel roads were clogged with cars, trucks and SUVs driven by city folks redirected by GPS and Google Maps.
The sheriff’s department, headquartered in the northeast corner of the 470-square-mile county, had to dispatch extra deputies to work traffic on the southwestern edge — at the last minute and on a holiday weekend, to boot.
For a short period on the Saturday before Labor Day, access to the farm had to be shut down.
“It was kind of like getting everybody who goes to a Chiefs game show up at a farm field,” said Maj. Jim Sherley of the Leavenworth County Sheriff’s Department. “It’s not an ideal situation.”
For Grinter and his wife, Kris, the process of finding a solution for this year’s crop — due to bloom in late August — has proved a little unsettling.
“The sunflowers have always been something that’s supposed to feel good,” Kris Grinter said, “and it’s not feeling very good right now.”
The Grinter family has been planting sunflowers for more than four decades. Ted’s father had the idea to grow the flowers for biofuel, but when that became untenable — the closest plant was hundreds of miles away — he grew them for birdseed.
The sight of acres and acres of sunflowers for years proved irresistible to travelers between Lawrence and Tonganoxie. Carloads of Kansans stopped along the highway and county roads to take family photos with a sea of sunshine in the background.
Then Facebook happened, and a local tradition became a worldwide phenomenon. That’s not even hyperbole; check out the Grinter Farms’ own Facebook page, which features messages from people in Europe, Nicaragua, Australia and Japan. The field is also a winner on Instagram (a search for posts from Grinters of sunflowers brings up hundreds).
Through it all, the Grinters have allowed nearly unfettered access to the fields sunrise to sunset while they’re in bloom. There’s no admission charge. No fee to park. No revenue to speak of. They’ve installed around the field some donation boxes, which they say cover what visitors take and trample. At the end of the day, the family sees the sunflowers as they see corn or wheat or soybeans — just another row crop, albeit a much prettier one.
Others, however, think they’re a tourist attraction. Hence the all-hands-on-deck discussions on how to handle another influx of out-of-towners driving to a rural area to gawk at a stunning field of unharvested birdseed.
“We’ve gone to a couple of meetings,” Ted Grinter said. “They want us to have bathrooms or Johnnies on the Spot.”
“They basically said we are a resource suck on the county,” Kris Grinter said. “But we know we bring a lot of revenue into the county. I know because I hear from business owners that see not just a little uptick but a big uptick when they’re blooming.”
The uptick in traffic, though, is what created a significant impact on Leavenworth County staff, sheriff’s department and emergency management last year, said county administrator Mark Loughry.
“Over Labor Day weekend we probably had more than 150,000 people,” he said. “We have the responsibility to provide for the safety and welfare of all of our citizens, including those who are traveling into our county to see the sunflowers. So we’re going to come up with the best plan that we can to ensure the safety and the health and the welfare of everybody that we can.”
In the realm of agritourism, though, the Grinters are doing exactly the right thing.
“We’re telling all of our agritourism folks, ‘You should plant sunflowers,’ ” said Sue Stringer, program manager for Kansas Agritourism and the Kansas Byways.
Stringer sees this as part of the traffic solution around the Grinters’ place: Get the word out about the other fields in the state. There will be a field south of Topeka. There’s another near Williamsburg. A small field is currently in bloom near Baxter Springs in far southeastern Kansas.
“I drove from Tipton to the state fair one year, and I’d bet you I passed probably half a dozen big, huge sunflower fields, and there wasn’t a soul around them,” she said.
Schwinn Farms near Leavenworth recently planted a small field outside their timber-frame barn to serve as a photo background for weddings held at their place this fall. Traffic to the field last year was steady but not overwhelming, and people were respectful.
Jay Schwinn, who also serves as chairman of the Kansas Agritourism Council, said it helped that Schwinn Farms is off the beaten path and the field is small potatoes compared to the Grinters’.
“I know the county is struggling a little bit trying to figure out how to handle the crowds, and it’s no fault of Ted’s,” he said. “He’s just planting a crop. And they’ll say, ‘Well, he puts it on Facebook.’ It doesn’t matter. If he didn’t put it on Facebook, it would only take one person to put on Facebook a picture with sunflowers behind them. That’s going to get shared so many times that he’s going to have crowds no matter what he does.”
At the county and state level, lots of things are being proposed. Road signs directing drivers coming from KC to get off Interstate 70 at the Kansas Speedway, for example, though nothing has been finalized. County Commissioner Smith said he hopes to see a solid plan weeks before it’s necessary.
Ted Grinter said he plans to have more volunteers to help with traffic. And even though it takes land out of production, he plans to have five more acres of parking — 20 total. But those makeshift lots are good only as long as it stays dry.
“We’ll keep trying,” he said.
He also planted the crop slightly earlier this year, so he expects the flowers to bloom a little before Labor Day, perhaps avoiding the holiday. It depends on the weather, though. If it’s 80 degrees, the flowers will bloom for two weeks. If it’s 105, maybe they’ll go six days.
“I thought about staggering planting but decided against it,” he said. “They said if I planted five different times in five different fields then we’d be their problem more than once.”