‘They just make you happy’: the Queensland farmers who took a chance on a million sunflowers

Estimated read time 7 min read

There is the smell of freshly cut hay as you travel the country road towards the yellow that dusts the landscape in the distance. Row upon row of sunflowers run away down the hills. Little bursts of sunshine sway on the top of tall stems. With their bright optimistic faces – their sheer yellowness – they reach towards the sun, bringing the positive.

But in 2021 there was no yellow in this landscape. Everything was brown, dead, desiccated in the heat haze. After seven years of drought the Moogerah Dam in south-east Queensland’s scenic rim was nearly empty. “There was no water left,” says Jenny Jenner, “and they were cutting off our allocation. And you can’t grow anything without water.” The quaint country towns in the area were depressed; no one was buying seed, fertiliser, fuel or food. “It wears people down,” the farmer adds. “You forget what years and years of drought do to people and the stress that it puts them under. I was trying to think, how could we diversify the farm? I was trying to think out of the box.

“What could we do?”

The epiphany was yellow. It came from a supermarket, wrapped in cellophane. Jenny’s husband, Russell, had spontaneously bought her three sunflowers from Woolworths. They lasted, she noted, more than a week in a vase.

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Neil McGregor, the director of the documentary film about them, Growing Happiness, says: “Obviously it had been a sort of rough patch for them, he had done this sort of little gesture, kind of a sweet little moment.”

When they were sitting on her bench Jenny thought: “How pretty are they?”

A field of sunflowersView image in fullscreen

Unable to grow their main crop of lucerne (for hay) and wanting to put something cheerful into the community, Jenny thought: “Why not plant a big patch of sunflowers and get people to come and look at them.” It was done, she says, “purely for tourism”,– they had no choice but to diversify. “We just thought let’s have a crack at this and see how it goes.”

Sunflowers are an obliging plant. They are drought hardy and only take 60 days to flower. “And it was on the news that people were crossing the road and climbing through barbed-wire fences, trespassing, stuff like that, to get photos” at sunflower farms across the country. And so Jenny would become a sunflower wrangler.

When Jenny has an idea, Russell says in the new documentary, “It happens.”

After planting their first crop, they began modestly, opening the farm for 2,500 people for a day. “We had so many people wanting to come that we ended up opening the next day and another 1,000 people turned up.”

Because, let’s face it, everyone looks good in a sunflower selfie.

In 2022 they planted a million sunflower seeds. Then came the obstacles. They had gone from being farmers to event managers. There was the challenge of trying to get so many flowers to reach peak glory on the three days the visitors would come. In front of the farmhouse veranda is a field of flowers that peaked early this year and are starting to droop.

“It has been so humid this year they came out in 40 days,” Jenny says.

Bees buzz around the centre of one bloomView image in fullscreen

There is, as every farmer knows, the unpredictability of weather. Nature has its own plan.

Jenny is sitting on the veranda of her home on a hill outside the town of Kalbar, a place of scenic wooden farmhouses. Cloud shadows dance across the rolling cinematic landscape stretching to the mountains of the Great Dividing Range, ghostly blue in the distance. In this moody subtropical climate you can see the storms coming across those mountains.

And come they did when the drought ended.

“Ever since we planted sunflowers it keeps raining.” In 2022 it rained and it rained and it rained – the east coast flooded. “When it’s raining constantly you can’t plant, you can’t get tractors on the ground, you can’t do anything.” The flowers were upset; drowning, stunted, shutting down. There were sleepless nights, 15,000 people had bought tickets to Kalbar sunflower festival but there were no blooming sunflowers. “Farmers are typically resilient people,” McGregor says, “it does take a bit to rattle them.” Rattled, the Jenners put the festival back two weeks.

Then there were the neighbours complaining about the volumes of people coming into town, clogging up narrow roads. “Everyone hates you,” one man is recorded saying vehemently in Growing Happiness. Even the redoubtable Jenny wilts like the waterlogged flowers outside after that phone call. “There are still a few issues,” she admits now. And council restrictions on numbers. “The council put some quite heavy restrictions, fines on us.”

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And then the worst thing happened. Amid all the yellow joy around her there is an undercurrent of sadness about Jenny, of grief.

Around Christmas 2021 – half a year after their first sunflowers bloomed – Russell was diagnosed with oesophageal cancer. Still, they kept going. “Russell was never one to sit in the corner and say, ‘Oh woe is me, I’m dying.’ He was very stoic.”

By last year the sunflower festival was such a success there was a waiting list of 17,000. It is sold out again this year. But these hectic days leading up to the 2024 festival, as Jenny awaits the delivery of 41 toilets and huge marquees are “bittersweet”.

A sign paying tribute to RussellView image in fullscreen

Russell died in July last year. Jenny has continued on the farm without her husband of 38 years. Her voice gets a bit wobbly when she talks about him. “I’ve learned a lot over the last couple of years. I will continue the festival in Russell’s honour and to raise money for cancer. That’s my focus.”

She wouldn’t be doing it, she admits, if it wasn’t making money. “It is a part of our business plan now. But if we can make a difference because we can grow some flowers we will try and help people. To me it is important to grow the sunflowers to do good for other people.”

To her the flowers are all individual, like people. “They are just different shapes – there’s really tall ones, you sometimes get them heart shaped, then you get other ones that are quite short. All the seeds are planted at the same time, they will be side by side, but they will look completely different. But when they flower and bloom they are all equally beautiful.”

While they are growing they will swivel from east to west tracking the sun across the sky. But once they bloom, Jenner says: “They all face east. They don’t need to go west any more. And they’re too heavy so they just stay in the one position.”

Seeing 25 acres of sunflowers en masse, unfurling into their full sunshiny power, covered in bees, basking in warmth, you can understand why they have been seen as symbols of spiritual significance for centuries, sacred in so many religions and cultures. The mathematical precision of the tiny florets in a pattern of interconnecting spirals at their centre is a marvel of nature.

Jenny in a field of flowersView image in fullscreen

As is the fact that so many thousands of people are drawn to them, brought out into the natural world. Studies have found that sunflower seeds can reduce stress levels and that exposure to sunflowers can release serotonin in the brain.

“They just make you happy,” Jenny says. “How can you go home unhappy?”

Above all, she says: “It is giving people hope. And nobody could ever say that the flowers weren’t beautiful.”

But they are all too fleeting. In 10 days they will wilt and be gone. Ploughed back into the earth for potassium. A crop of wheat will be planted in their place. Until next year.

  • Growing Happiness has its world premiere on Sunday 21 April at the Gold Coast film festival

Source: theguardian.com

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