'Summer's last smile' puts on a show

Ordinarily a time of joy, the arrival of sunflowers this year is tinged with sadness at Frederick Farms

Mike Murphy
A playful Jim McLaughlin gets up close and personal with the sunflowers at American Equipment in Farmington.

The arrival of the sunflower is a spectacular, but bittersweet occasion — a last gasp of summer and early reminder of fall, but what a show!

For the Frederick family of Clifton Springs, this time of year ordinarily is when they showcase sunflowers to travelers from all over.

Depending on the year, hundreds of thousands of sunflower seeds would be planted on 30 to 50 acres of land at Frederick Farms in Clifton Springs, producing half a million to 1 million sunflowers by their estimates.

Earlier this summer, the Fredericks decided to hold off on their annual sunflower hayrides, partly due to the COVID-19 pandemic but also because of uncertainty over John Frederick’s cancer illness. Mr. Frederick, 70, died last month.

The decision to hold off was difficult, said his daughter, Jaimee Frederick, who would often post photos of the planting of sunflowers and their blooming on Facebook.

“We didn’t know and it takes a lot of planning,” she said. “We couldn’t this year. Hopefully, next year.”

Those who miss the hayrides can still find what Amber Valvano calls “summer’s last smile” in Farmington.

Many people are flocking to the sunflower field at American Equipment on Route 332 for smiles — and photos.

Valvano, of Canandaigua, and family visited the field near Thruway Exit 44 for an impromptu photo shoot — with sunflower upon sunflower as background.

“It’s definitely a pretty sight to see,” Valvano said.

While the coronavirus pandemic may have more sunflower aficionados than normal out and about and enjoying the scenery in a socially distanced way, this is pretty much a standard year when it comes to the flower itself.

According to Russell Welser, senior resource educator at Cornell Cooperative Extension of Ontario County, this year is pretty much the same as other years for growing sunflowers.

“When they show their color depends on when they were planted and what variety of sunflower, along with weather conditions,” Welser said.

Jim McLaughlin, a photo buff from Lima, Livingston County, happened upon the field in Farmington while on the way to an appointment. On his return, he pulled out his camera and began shooting away.

McLaughlin posts his photos on Facebook or gives them away as gifts.

“They make beautiful pictures,” McLaughlin said. “There is so much creatively you can go with them.”

If anyone understood the appeal of sunflowers, it was lifelong farmer John Frederick. The whole sunflower experience started for him when a friend had a piece of land and he asked what he should plant, said his wife, Jan Frederick.

"It spread from there," she said.

Her husband loved to show off the flowers to visitors, offering hayrides for the last 15 or so years or just talking to people who would discover the vast field of sunshine on a Sunday drive.

“A true farmer, he loved chatting with people,” she said.

He loved talking about his sunflowers, and visitors, who came “from all over the place,” including other countries, enjoyed hearing about them, she said.

She is sure people have been driving by, looking for them.

“They make people happy,” she said. “They’re sunshiney.”

Sunflower after sunflower at Frederick Farms in Clifton Springs. Because of the death of farmer John Frederick and uncertainty over the COVID-19 pandemic, hayrides are not being offered this year.