Sinha’s sunflower maze a golden ticket in Augusta
By TAMARA SCULLY
AUGUSTA — Across the Garden State, fields of sunflowers are springing up in record numbers.
Folks driving by stop in awe, and take photos.
The sunflowers are being grown as a partnership between farmers and the New Jersey Audubon Society, demonstrating that viable farming and environmental stewardship can cohabitate.
Raj Sinha of Liberty Farm in Sandyston Township, is credited with brainstorming the sunflower maze concept. Sinha planted the field of sunflowers, along with fellow farmer Jeff Angle, of Ridge View Farm in Layton, on 30 acres of land owned by fellow farmer Tico Lin and family.
The field is situated at a highly visible location near the Skylands Park baseball stadium, along Route 565 near Ross’ Corners, where State Route 15 meets State Route 206, just north of the county seat of Newton.
The Lin family operates a bakery on the farm property, Roseline’s Farm and Bakery.
The location was chosen, Sinha said, to “increase agritourism for Roseline’s and for the county,” as well as to draw attention to the partnership between NJAS and local farmers.
The grand opening of the maze, held on Aug. 18, was designed to highlight the many benefits of local farming, as well as to promote the positive impact the farming community has in Sussex County.
The maze, Sinha said, is an example of the collaboration between farmers, and is an example of the efforts which Sussex County makes to promote tourism, farmland preservation and conservation.
Tourism — both agricultural and eco-tourism — are “very important to the county,” said Donna Traylor, coordinator of the Sussex County Office of Farmland Preservation and Conservation.
“It all is what makes Sussex County a unique county,” she added.
The black oil sunflower seeds, which will be harvested from Sinha’s sunflower crop, are used in birdseed, and typically have been produced in the Midwest.
The New Jersey Audubon Society recently developed a program in which local farmers plant sunflowers for seed, which is produced and marketed under NJAS’s S.A.V.E. label.
In exchange, the farmers dedicate one acre of land — for every five acres of sunflowers planted — to habitat restoration for grasslands birds.
The black oil sunflower seed production is just one example of “common ground” between farmers and conservationists, John Parke, stewardship project director-North Region, NJAS, said. Programs such as S.A.V.E. “find those common ground issues and capitalize on them,” providing habitat enhancement, economic viability for the farmers, and opportunities for New Jersey’s residents to purchase locally-grown products.
Niche market agricultural products marketed by the S.A.V.E. program are supported by a “strong customer base because each project has an ecological component to it,” Parke said.
Combining “a robust agricultural economy with restoration and habitat for wildlife” is the goal of the S.A.V.E. program.
Birdhouses and feeders are also marketed through the S.A.V.E. program.
Corn mazes have been successful agritourism destinations for the past several decades.
Combining the beauty of the sunflowers with the attraction of a maze not only was a great way to attract visitors out to the fields, and create additional income for the farmer, it was also a fun and educational way to connect non-farmers with an agricultural experience.
“By far, Raj Sinha’s idea to create a maze in the field is exceptional,” Parke said. “The maze concept ... immerses the people into the field, and puts you into the center of the project.”
Opportunities to view the birds, butterflies and bees, along with other wildlife, complete with plenty of photo opportunities, make the maze an interactive experience, Parke said
In honor of the partnerships and opportunities which the S.A.V.E. program has created for local farmers, Sinha’s maze spells out the acronym.
The crowd included Rich Nieuwenhuis, president of New Jersey Farm Bureau, as well as Al Murray, New Jersey’s assistant secretary of agriculture, and other prominent members of the community.
About 50 people were in attendance at the event, which featured a display of S.A.V.E. merchandise, Sinha’s own salsa, “Jersey Devil Salsa,” and fresh baked goods from Roseline’s, in addition to a tour of the maze.
“One of the things that we find very important ... is the locally-grown movement,” Murray said, which is helping to “reconnect people back to the farmland.”
Sinha’s maze, which is “the only sunflower maze that we are aware of in the state of New Jersey,” promotes a “greater appreciation of what our farmers do, day in and day out.”
Mary Nikola, director of the New Jersey Agricultural Leadership Development Program, also attended the event.
Sinha and Parke are both graduates of the program, from the most recent graduating class.
Both credited the program with being instrumental in the maze’s creation.
The theme of cooperation and collaboration was mentioned by many at the maze’s opening.
“There is a synergy between agriculture and the New Jersey Audubon Society,” Nieuwenhuis said, crediting the NJALDP with creating a connection and developing a working bond between the conservation and agricultural communities.
Visitors to the maze can stop in for refreshments at Roselines’ Farm and Bakery store to purchase refreshments or farm products available through the New Jersey Audubon’s S.A.V.E. program, including sunflower seeds, birdhouses or feeders, or simply take home a bouquet of sunflowers.
Sinja has incorporated a scavenger hunt into the maze, with small bags of sunflower seeds awarded to those who successfully find all the items.
He is adding more educational components to the hunt, hoping to provide not only entertainment and memories, but a learning experience as well.
During a recent weekend, a photographer was available for hire, creating a unique photo CD for visitors to take home with them, documenting their experience.
“It’s my hope by creating the maze that we can help New Jersey farmers educate and stimulate New Jersey consumers,” Sinha said.
The maze’s longevity depends on the weather.
Harvest of the flowers will occur in early September, and may create another opportunity for folks to watch farming in action.
For now, it’s best to plan to get to the maze as soon as possible, while the flowers are fresh and blooming.
As the flowers fade, Sinja will decide whether to keep the field open for wildlife viewing and educational opportunities.
Sinja hopes that if conditions are favorable, the maze was scheduled to be open through Aug. 28, but like all things in farming, there are no guarantees!
For more information on the maze, visit www.SussexCountySunflowerMaze.com.