Writer: Jane Moorman, 505-249-0527, firstname.lastname@example.org
PENA BLANCA, N.M. Fields of yellow sunflowers raising their blossoms to the sun are the focus of New Mexico's newest festival.
The Pena Blanca Sunflower Project will host its first Sunflower Festival from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, Aug. 25-26, at the Pena Blanca Community Center on NM 22.
"Many people have a tradition of going to the Dixon Orchards in the fall as a family outing. They passed through our community on that trip," said Patrice Harrison-Inglis, coordinator of the project. "Since the Los Conchas Fire has caused the canyon to be closed to the public this year, we decided to offer an event where families may continue that tradition of an outing in the country.
"A field of sunflowers is an uplifting sight. I think people will want to put our festival on their annual calendar," she said.
Visitors to the festival will be able to take a hayride around the area to view fields of sunflowers. The tour will enable photographers to capture shots from a distance and up close.
A variety of festival activities, including educational agricultural exhibits and vendors with sunflower products, will be at the community center.
Admission is $1 for adults. Children under 44-inches in height will be admitted free. To reach Pena Blanca, exit I-25 at the Santo Domingo exit and travel west toward Cochiti Lake; signage will indicate the community center location.
The Pena Blanca Sunflower Project is an economic development project supported by the New Mexico Department of Agriculture and New Mexico State University's Cooperative Extension Service.
Several farmers in the Pena Blanca area and Native American pueblos have planted sunflowers this year under the direction of Del Jimenez, NMSU Extension agricultural specialist at NMSU's Sustainable Agriculture Science Center at Alcalde.
"We've always known sunflowers would grow here because of the wildflowers that are along the roads and in our fields," Jimenez said. "We are looking for a crop that will sustain itself, be useful for the people growing it and have a market."
Sunflowers are a native North American plant believed to have existed naturally as early as 3,000 B.C. in an area that is now New Mexico and Arizona. The seeds were primarily used for food by the human inhabitants. When ground, the resulting flour was used in bread and cake. When cracked, the seeds were eaten like nuts. Sunflowers seeds were also a source of purple dye used as body paint and to decorate baskets and textiles.
Today, the bright yellow flower yields seeds that are processed for cooking oil, confectionary use in snacks and birdseed. Nationally, 2.7 billion pounds of seeds were produced in 2011 with a value of $582.5 billion. Sunflowers are primarily grown in the Great Plains areas of Kansas, Colorado, South Dakota and North Dakota. Some Eastern New Mexico farmers raise sunflowers as an alternative crop when the market value is higher than for other corps such as cotton, corn or wheat.
Harrison-Inglis envisions the Pena Blanca Sunflower Project as an economic development vehicle for her community. With a New Mexico Department of Agriculture specialty crop block grant, she planted a demonstration field in 2011 to show her neighbors the possibilities. This year, many neighbors have followed suit and planted either oilseed or confectionary varieties.
"I see Pena Blanca as 'the sunflower place.' Kind of like Hatch is the green chile place," she said. "This area is the perfect location for a small-scale specialty crop and a beautiful festival every fall where people from Albuquerque and Santa Fe could come out and enjoy seeing the fields."
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