7 things to know before you visit Grinter Farms’ sea of sunflowers

If you plan to be among the hundreds (or perhaps thousands) of tourists swarming to Grinter Farms to bask in the grandeur of 40 acres of sunflowers this weekend, there’s one thing you should bring in abundance.

“Patience,” said Kathy Link, a member of the Tonganoxie Business Association. “You have to have patience. But it’s worth the drive, it really is.”

The flowers began blooming early this week, which could mean prime viewing in the coming days. Last year, the crowds overwhelmed both the Grinter family and the resources of Leavenworth County. Traffic backed up for miles on Labor Day Weekend, and some folks waited in their cars for up to three hours. The jammed-up highway was deemed hazardous enough that access to the farm was shut down for a time on the Saturday of Labor Day weekend.

It’s hard to say how many people might show up this year. To the Grinter family, the acres of sunflowers are a crop of eventual birdseed. But they understand the appeal of the Kansas state flower, allowing mostly unfettered access to anyone who wants to snap photos or take a leisurely walk in a field of sunshine.

The farm saw a steady trickle of gawkers into the evening on Tuesday, including portrait photographers testing different approaches, international students from the University of Kansas down the road and candidates for office from two counties away, visiting the farm to take some campaign photos.

“If you see any weeds, go ahead and pull them,” Ted Grinter joked with a visitor at sunset Tuesday. “I won’t stop you.”

Grinter said one of his top pieces of advice for visitors is to put down the phone when they’re driving out to the farm.

“Until you are in your parking spot, put the phone away,” he said. “There’s too many people around here to be distracted.”

Here are some more tips for making your trip more enjoyable:

1. Plan your route. Part of the traffic congestion last year was due to issues with GPS and apps that directed out-of-towners down gravel roads that became backed up and congested. This year, the county has closed the problematic gravel roads to all but local traffic.

Additionally, U.S. 24/40 is a two-lane highway that’s not built for the kind of traffic the weekend could bring. One official compared it to a Chiefs game in a farm field.

People driving west on I-70 from Kansas City can take several highway exits to get to the farm: I-435 North to State Avenue West; 110th Street to State Avenue; Leavenworth K-7 to State Avenue; or the Tonganoxie exit off of I-70. On a normal day, all take about the same amount of time, give or take five minutes (trust this writer who commutes from the area nearly every day).

Drivers also could take the East Lawrence exit, but people driving from the west likely will take that exit.

If you stop in Tonganoxie, one of the locals might be able to tell you the super-secret route from the north and west that might help you avoid some of the possible mess.

Also: Go early in the day, and not just to avoid traffic.

2. Pro tips on photos and video. The heads of the sunflowers follow the sun until they mature, when they remain facing east. Researchers say this trait gives sunflowers a biological advantage — warming up earlier on cooler mornings to attract more pollinators. This means the sun will shine brightest on them (and your family’s shiny happy faces) in the morning.

If you don’t make it out early, you can compensate by using your camera’s flash to light up faces that might be shadowed by overhead sun or backlight.

Other tips for taking great sunflower photos, courtesy of Reed Hoffmann, photography instructor and occasional contributor to The Star (and spouse to assistant editor Sharon Hoffmann): Get a nice, big, sunflower-y background by standing on a stool or stepladder and shooting from above. Use a selfie stick or — better yet — a tripod with a timer on the camera so you can get in the photo, too. If you don’t have any of those implements, ask a fellow tourist to take a photo.

And, Hoffmann says, have fun with it. Jump. Make goofy faces. Put a sunflower stalk in your teeth — not the greatest tasting thing in the world, certainly, but it’ll make a nice photo and maybe even a better story.

Star video producer Monty Davis says if you’re taking video, remember to mix it up with wide, medium and tight shots from different angles. As the day goes on, bees and insects get more active, creating opportunities for interesting close-ups (but not too close — they’re bees). And make sure the background is free of other people (again, be patient).

3. Read and follow the rules. The Grinters have compiled a Rules of Engagement post on Facebook that not only helps people enjoy their visit, but it’s a delightful read, to boot.

For example: “If you lost something in the field and it’s big enough to mess up a combine … please find it. On that note, I’m thinking of going into the used stroller and ladder business. Also related, hang onto your glasses. They are, by far, the No. 1 item we find in the field. No. 2 … car keys!”

And: “We do allow people to cut sunflowers if they wish. We have ‘donation’ boxes at the field and a general rule of thumb is a dollar a flower, but honestly, they do NOT make great cut flowers but it’s really okay if you just have to have one. Just know that they will probably wilt and die before you get home, and they make a mess from the pollen. Also, if you have a kid that just really wants one, be prepared for that same kid to scream when they realize there is a bug on it. This generally happens when you’re in the car … driving … (You’ve been warned!)”

4. Parking. Finding a place to park your oversized urban assault vehicle will be difficult. The Grinters have some fields dedicated to parking, but it’s been a rainy August and even a little moisture could make the parking areas inaccessible. The Grinters, as well as Leavenworth County law enforcement and emergency services, do not want visitors parking on the side of the road. Visitors can help alleviate parking by coming during the week instead of the weekend. Parking will be at a premium.

5. Look for sunflowers elsewhere. Grinter Farms isn’t the only place in Kansas to see acres of sunflowers (though it might be one of the largest, regionally). Schwinn Produce Farm near Leavenworth has a small field. George and Cheryl Hunsinger planted six acres south of Lawrence. Near K-State, Michael and Angela Britt of Britt’s Garden Acres have an eight-acre field of sunflowers out by the Manhattan Regional Airport. And if you’re reading this way out west in Kansas, several farms near Goodland are in bloom.

Sue Stringer, manager of Kansas Byways and agritourism for the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism, says to make sure landowners are cool with you walking through their cropland.

“It’s a matter of whether the farmer is willing to have people traipse into their field,” she said. “A lot of them are oil-production crops so they aren’t wanting people to take what they’re growing. It’s kind of like going and picking sweet corn out of somebody’s field.”

6. Go beyond the farm. One of the beefs Leavenworth County authorities have with the annual attraction is people come to the farm and then leave without spending any time — meaning money — in other parts of the county. Nearby Tonganoxie is having a Sunflower Stroll this weekend (Sept. 1-3), with a craft fair and specials at local businesses on Friday, Saturday and Monday. The town is decorated with painted sunflowers and bouquets all along the main business district on Fourth Street.

7. Again, have patience. Did we mention you should be patient? If you find yourself stuck in traffic, struggling to find parking, sneezing from the pollen or in desperate need of a Port-A-Potty, remember: This is something beautiful and free. Be chill and enjoy.

David Frese: 816-234-4463, @DavidFrese

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