Sunflower Steve’s patience yields blooms of many colors


My fascination with the world of plant breeding probably stems from knowing that I would never have the chops to do it myself. Because if there’s one thing that plant breeding requires, it’s patience.

From what I can tell, Steve Kaufer, a flower farmer in Ellsworth, Wis., which is within spitting distance of Minneapolis, must be an extremely patient man. He supplies flowers grown on his farm to florists, but he also dabbles in plant breeding. And soon, one of his creations could be in your garden.

Kaufer has bred a line of double sunflowers unlike any other currently available, and it could be on the market as soon as this winter.

But those sunflowers started 12 years ago, when Kaufer noticed a few sunflowers in a field he left fallow for the year that looked much different from what he’d seen before. Only one provided viable seeds, so he had just 10 good seeds to work with.

Those were sown the next year, but only two of the interesting flowers were produced. So he saved the seeds from those.

Since then, Kaufer has been selecting seeds and hand pollinating when necessary to develop his sunflowers.

In addition to patience, a plant breeder must also have excellent powers of observation — Kaufer walks his fields looking for any notable trait to track — and be completely ruthless. Any single flowers or deformed flowers are immediately culled.

The ruthless culling started about four years ago, he said, and this year especially he’s seeing that strategy pay off. Already he has spotted flowers with interesting color variations, including one that is the color of a copper penny, some that are extremely upward facing (which is particularly good for bouquets since sunflower have a habit of nodding) and several extremely early bloomers, including one that bloomed 38 days after planting, about half the time of most of his sunflowers.

He marks interesting or notable flower traits with ribbons or flags, although he admits to keeping only very general notes. He’s also working to separate the various colors he’s produced, everything from a Green Bay Packers colored lemon yellow with a green center, to deep maroon, orange, gold and cherry red.

His breeding efforts caught the eye of Ball Seed, one of the biggest seed companies in the world, but it was looking for more uniformity in the flowers. So Kaufer wrote to Erin Benzakein, owner of the well-known flower farm Floret Flower Farm and star of a cable documentary about her farm. She immediately called back, he said, excited about helping him bring his flowers to home gardeners.

Seed production is in full swing, with Kaufer growing about 250,000 sunflowers for seed production (and another 350,000 for cutting) and Benzakein growing more on her Washington State farm. If it’s a good year, seeds from Sunflower Steve’s as-of-yet unnamed sunflowers could be sold through Floret this winter.

One more year on top of a dozen already invested might be hard for some of us, but my guess is that Kaufer will summon some more patience and be just fine.



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Ozaukee Press

Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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