By JOHN LUCIEW
The (Harrisburg) Patriot-News via Associated Press
GRATZ, Pa. (AP) -- Call it an agricultural anomaly.
Amid the fields of amber wheat and rows of leafy, knee-high corn rise tall, gawky stalks peeking with yellow.
But, before these sunflowers can bloom and burst with color, men with machetes comb the rows and hand-harvest the flowers just as they're beginning to open.
This is because these sunflowers, planted on a 50-acre patch by Crissinger Dairy Farms, aren't meant for food or birdseed.
Within days of their harvest, the signature, colorful blooms are destined for supermarkets and other stores to be sold at a premium as fresh-cut flowers.
The venture into fresh-cut sunflowers has opened a whole new market for Crissinger Dairy Farms and its newly launched subsidiary, New Covenant Farm, which focuses on the sunflower business.
And while it is a textbook example of advantageous agricultural diversification, according to Penn State Extension officials, the farm's move into this new market wasn't the result of some long-planned business decision.
It happened by accident.
The Crissinger family farm, which works some 800 acres clustered around this northern Dauphin County village, had just harvested one of its more traditional cash crops of corn, soy, alfalfa or wheat, and needed some quick cover for the exposed earth.
So in the summer of 2009, brothers Joshua and Nathan Crissinger bought a large bag of birdseed to scatter on the soil in hopes something would grow.
Sixty days later there stood an eye-catching cluster of 6-foot-tall, bulbous-yellow sunflowers with burnt-orange centers, swaying gently in the breeze.
It was such a sight, motorists along Route 25 were doing double-takes, as if they had just entered some wondrous, Oz-like land.
Farmers aren't ones to waste an opportunity. And when the land yields something up, they mean to harvest it.
So Josh and Nathan did just that, mowing down the pretty sunflowers and processing them into birdseed. They sold the bags to local hardware, feed and pet stores.
Josh Crissinger calculated that the happy accident of those sunflower seeds had the potential to gross about $1,000 an acre -- roughly the same as the farm's corn crop but at 30 percent less than corn's input, growing and processing costs.
The next year, the Crissinger brothers, both in their 20s, set out to grow sunflowers as a cash crop, not a cover crop.
Once again, they were setting their sights on the birdseed market when another welcome occurrence of farmer's fortune intervened.
By last July, the Crissingers' blinding-yellow sunflower fields weren't just catching the eye of motorists and tourists, some of whom would pull off the road and pull out their cameras to capture the colorful sight.
Greenhouse truck driver Tye Hess of Pillow also noticed the Crissingers' brilliant yellow oasis. But where others saw pleasant scenery, Hess saw a business proposition.
Employed by mega-greenhouse Van Hoekelen in McAdoo, near Hazleton, Hess knew there was a growing market for fresh-cut sunflowers.
He soon connected the Crissingers with his green-thumbed employer.
By the end of last year's growing season, Crissinger Farms sold some 17,000 fresh-cut sunflowers to Van Hoekelen, which in turn supplies supermarkets and stores.
Josh Crissinger declined to discuss the economics of the fresh-cut sunflower business.
Suffice it to say that revenues per acre are higher than for birdseed, but so are the processing and labor costs. Fresh-cut sunflowers must be harvested by hand, one at a time -- and very discerningly -- about a week before they reach full bloom.
"It pays better, but there's a lot of labor involved," says Josh, 26. "It takes more management."
That management includes a bilingual field supervisor who oversees seven laborers from Shenandoah. They work from six to nine hours a day harvesting up to 17,000 fresh-cut sunflowers a shift.
The workers are barely visible as they fan out behind a green wall of 6-foot stalks.
First, they must identify a flower ready for harvest. This means spotting buds with just a wink of yellow amid the jagged, green leaves protecting the bloom.
Harvesting entails a few sudden and decisive swings of a razor-sharp machete. In two downward strokes, a worker sheers off all the plant's leaves below the bulbous head. Then, with a single horizontal whack, the worker severs the stalk so that only the flower and a 30-inch stem remains.
Every so often, the workers appear from among the stalks cradling bouquets of yet-to-open sunflowers, which they carefully deposit into tubs of water hauled by a tractor.
When these tubs are filled, they are hauled away and fork-lifted into an idling tractor-trailer with a refrigerated car. A fresh trailer-load of sunflowers is hauled to the Hazleton greenhouse each morning.
It will continue this way through September, as the Crissingers harvest a fresh-cut crop of 1.5 million plants. Often, they ship in a single day what they harvested all of last year.
Josh Crissinger is reticent to share many details of his farm's relationship with Van Hoekelen, which has 14 acres of greenhouse under roof in McAdoo. The greenhouse also declined to comment.
As a contract grower, Josh will ship all of his fresh-cut sunflowers to the greenhouse, which supplied the Sunrise Orange and Sunbright Supreme seeds for planting. Future growth for the Crissingers will depend on how fast and how far Van Hoekelen can market the flowers.
Beyond growing and shipping great sunflowers, the rest of the business is largely out of the Crissingers' hands.
Still, Josh finds himself checking supermarket flower sections to see whether they carry sunflowers. And he is putting his love life where his business is.
He and his fiancee, Erin Rosner, 21, will be married on Sept. 17 under a gazebo in a nearby field, surrounded by 4 acres of blooming sunflowers. Guests will be seated on hay bales in a clearing.
If that union has any of the luck that the Crissingers' sunflower business has enjoyed, its roots surely will grow strong.
In fact, Paul Craig, with Penn State Extension's Dauphin County office, has never seen anything quite like it.
"It's unique, I'll say that," Craig says of the Crissingers' sunflower saga. "The opportunity just happened to drive down the road."
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.