FARGO — More and more people are seeing North Dakota's golden fields of sunflowers as the perfect backdrop for photos, and state tourism officials are taking notice.
They're marketing sunflower fields to out-of-state travelers as Instagram-worthy destinations. A recent search of the popular social media site turned up 5.6 million posts under #sunflower.
“People are looking for more natural, organic kinds of things to do, and in North Dakota, we can deliver beautiful agricultural scenery,” said Sara Otte Coleman, the state’s tourism director.
Due to increased interest a few years back, the tourism division began offering sunflower “bloom forecasts,” similar to those issued for when fall leaves are at peak color. This year, it added a map of visitor-friendly sunflower fields to its website. The moves were featured recently on CNN, Yahoo, and Travel and Leisure.
There are plenty of spots to view sunflowers, with fields all over the state.
John Sandbakken, executive director of the National Sunflower Association, said North Dakota growers planted more than 525,000 acres this year, up 15 percent from last year due to strong U.S. demand for sunflower oil.
“It has a healthy halo,” Sandbakken said.
It’s hard to deny the appeal of the cheery, golden flowers, the heads of which follow the path of the sun during early stages of growth.
“I think sunflowers are just a symbol of happy,” Otte Coleman said.
She often hears from people wanting to stage a marriage proposal in a sunflower field, and they ask when, exactly, the flowers will be in bloom in order to book their travel.
“Makes me realize I don’t ever want to be a wedding planner,” she said with a laugh.
A heavy influx of travelers could be cause for concern, Otte Coleman said, as some once-pristine places in the country have been spoiled by people seeking that perfect Instagram photo.
For example, in March of this year, a town in southern California had to close access to a nature area after throngs of visitors showed up to take photos of a “super bloom” of desert wildflowers.
Otte Coleman said her agency's partnership with the National Sunflower Association has identified easy-access fields and growers open to having visitors. For other fields people come across, they should ask permission to enter, if possible, and they shouldn’t go deep into the fields or break stalks.
“That’s actually that farmer’s livelihood and a valuable crop that we don’t want destroyed,” she said.
North Dakota a top producer
North and South Dakota typically trade off as the country's top grower of sunflowers, Sandbakken said, with Minnesota, Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska and Texas falling in line.
Last year, of the 2.2 billion pounds produced in this country, 740 million pounds were produced in North Dakota.
Most of the sunflower seeds in the state, about 80 percent, are grown for oil, while the rest are confectionary — the roasted, salted varieties that are a favorite at the ballpark and the lake.
Sandbakken hopes people visiting sunflower fields will see the health factors, as well as the beauty. “If they like how it looks physically, it may entice them to buy the product,” he said.
Asked whether he was concerned about tourists trampling sunflower fields, he said bears might be a bigger issue.
“In Minnesota, they like to roll in them,” he said, laughing.
'Enjoy them now'
Sunflower fields are reported to be at 100% in bloom in western North Dakota, and about 70% statewide, Otte Coleman said.
The season will be longer in the eastern part of the state because those fields were planted later, she said.
Once they’ve bloomed, sunflowers typically remain at their peak for about two weeks. They need to dry out completely after a hard freeze before they’re harvested in the fall.
“They actually turn brown and get kind of ugly before they’ll be combined, so enjoy them now while you can,” Otte Coleman said.