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Shedding some light on sunflower grower Elm Family Flowers in Lancaster County

Daniel Lepp of Elm Family Flowers shows the height his sunflowers will reach by harvest time.

The promise of summer warmth and sunshine arrives in early spring at a 20-acre farm in the village of Penryn, Lancaster County.

It comes in a five-gallon plastic bucket via a package-delivery service. The bucket contains 100,000 seeds that will provide locally grown sunflowers to Royer’s customers from June to October.

“One seed equals one flower,” said Daniel Lapp, the owner of Elm Family Flowers.

Approximately a dozen years ago, Lapp called Royer’s CEO Tom Royer in search of a customer and has been supplying Royer’s stores ever since. The hybrid seed Lapp uses produces beautiful flowers that are also pollenless, which means they won’t leave a mess in someone’s home or draw insects.

Not only do sunflowers have a solar-like appearance, but they actually turn toward the sun while growing, a process known as heliotropism. It’s little wonder, then, that no other flower is more closely linked to summer.

It’s a vibe that customers also want in the doldrums of winter, which is why Royer’s offers sunflowers year-round, both loose and in 15 to 20 arrangements. Lapp harvests until the first frost in October, at which point Royer’s turns to a grower in Peru to fill its need until the next spring.

While the South American sunflowers are of high quality, it takes five or six days for a shipment to arrive. By contrast, Lapp is 20 minutes from Royer’s in Lebanon, shortening the amount of time from farm to customer and all but eliminating travel-related duress for the flowers.

“It’s very convenient,” Royer said. “They last a long time.”

In fact, Lapp’s sunflowers can provide customers with two to three weeks of enjoyment.

But growing sunflowers, like any crop, is wrought with plenty of challenges, mostly having to do with the variable of weather. Going into any growing season Lapp knows that 40 percent of his seeds are unlikely to germinate.

April 15 is associated with Tax Day, but it’s also a benchmark for Lapp’s farm: It’s when his first weekly sunflower planting begins. Six weeks in, this year’s first crop was rising in four rows of green splendor. But the second planting was yielding little.

Biggest challenge

“I probably didn’t even have 1 percent of them come up,” Lapp said, blaming cold, wet weather.

“Here’s the third (planting),” he continued, moving to his right. “This wider one is the fourth one. Here’s the fifth one; that’s coming up. The sixth one here practically didn’t come up at all yet because we didn’t have any rain.”

Lapp’s teen-age son James was working on the seventh planting under bright sunshine on a day when the high temperature was expected to reach the low 80s without precipitation.

“He’s trying to plant them a little deeper right now because it’s so dry,” Lapp said. 

If spring can prove too cold or too wet, summer can deliver too much heat and too little rain. Germination is his biggest challenge, Lapp said, followed by the risk of cool, wet weather making the plants susceptible to a fungus called botrytis.

The farm (it also grows vegetables and is certified organic) grows sunflowers on one and a half to two acres. A walk-behind precision seeder opens the soil, plants a seed and covers it.

Lapp with the precision seeder used to plant 100,000 seeds in a growing season.

The goal is to plant the seeds a half-inch deep, but that will be adjusted to one inch in the summer if necessary to protect the seed against heat and get it closer to moisture.

But Lapp must be careful not to put the seed too deep in the ground as a heavy rain can pack the soil so hard that the seed can’t come up. Heavy rain followed by sunshine can turn the soil into a crust.

If germination is light, those seeds that do come up tend to be taller with thicker stems because they have more room to grow.

“Which sometimes a bunch of five you can’t even hold in one hand, which isn’t ideal,” Lapp said.

Wetter weather produces taller, fatter stems; if the weather is drier, stems are shorter and thinner. Thick stems can take up too much space in a bouquet, and the flowers can get too big.

A stem with a half-inch diameter is ideal, Lapp said. For Royer’s, his only sunflower customer, he bands them in bunches of five, 12 to 15 bunches to a bucket.

Germination and weather also determine the quantity of the crop.

Harvest time

 “Once we’re harvesting, I report to (Tom Royer) every week to give him an idea what I’m going to have the next week,” Lapp said.

As much as they try to coordinate supply and demand, Lapp said Royer’s has accommodated fluctuations.

“Tom’s been really good at moving them,” Lapp said. “If we get a flush of them, he’ll try to run a sale or a special” to help move the excess inventory.

Come harvest time, Lapp first strips the mature plants of their leaves. Then he cuts the stems with a sickle until he has five in one hand.

If sunflowers are an embodiment of sunshine, banding them is a time for his son to shine.

“James is pretty good with the harvesting part of it,” Lapp said against the backdrop of the clicking precision seeder, which James is operating.

“He’s figured out a way to get that rubber band on his hand before he reaches for the sunflowers,” Lapp said.

Father and son pile the banded sunflowers in the paths between each planting until they are finished with each harvest.

The sunflowers will be moved to buckets filled with water until later that day or the next one when Royer’s makes one of its three weekly pickups throughout the season.