Sunflowers to be harvested for perhaps the first time |

Sunflowers to be harvested for perhaps the first time

by Linda Hiller

Perhaps for the first time in the agricultural history of Carson Valley, acres of bright yellow sunflowers are nodding in the breeze, awaiting harvest.

The idea came from a need felt by native son Howard Godecke, who owns and operates a successful bird feeding business, Songbird Survival Project.

“I buy seed by the container load (41,000 pounds) and had been increasingly frustrated with the quality I was buying,” he said. “I have to ship them here, and in the sunflower business, the bigger seeds go to the companies making oil. Then they sell the smaller ones, worm-riddled ones for birdseed, but I really need larger seeds.”

The reason this is a problem is because Godecke’s company specializes in his ingenious invention of hanging seed bags, called “seedsox,” made of specifically designed fabric and netting, enabling birds to cling to each sock, picking out the seeds of their choice. The sunflower seed bags have a large mesh and the smaller seeds fall right through, he said, which is why larger seeds are needed.

– Songbird’s beginnings. Godecke started the idea for the company in 1978, after working for years in Sacramento and returning to the Valley to care for his mother, Esther, whose eyesight was fading due to macular degeneration. Godecke’s father, longtime dairy farmer, Clarence Godecke, had died that year.

Having come into the world on the Milky Way Farm on Heybourne Road, where he spent his childhood with three other siblings, Godecke fondly remembered the wide variety of birds frequenting the Valley.

Upon his return, he noticed some changes. Most notable was the decrease in his favorite childhood bird – bluebirds – which had always harkened the beginning of summer with their yearly return. Chickadees, too, seemed absent from Minden, so he began to explore the reasons for their decline, starting with bird seed experiments.

After trying many different types of seed, he discovered that two seeds – sunflower seeds and niger thistle – were the most popular seeds for songbirds. He later developed fabric socks to hold the seed so the birds wouldn’t have to eat off the ground where contamination would be more likely, and the birds were responsive.

“I found that sunflower seeds are the number 1 seed of choice for most all birds,” he said. “So now I’ve decided to try and grow black oil sunflowers here so I can keep the price down for friends and customers.”

Today, the yellow and green seed bags from Songbird Survival Project are seen all over Carson Valley, Northern Nevada and in many locations outside of Nevada, sold through the business’s website, as well as through national advertising.

n Perfect pairing. After deciding to plant the sunflowers locally, Godecke enlisted the assistance of his deceased sister, Elinor’s son, Craig Witt, 42, who largely owns and fully runs Milky Way Farm, operating Full Circle Compost on the property.

As it turned out, the pair realized that planting the sunflowers on land Clarence Godecke had tended for so many years would be a mutually beneficial endeavor. Godecke bought $790 worth of three varieties of black oil sunflower seeds from a company in Texas, and Witt developed a cultivator specifically designed to plant the seeds.

After what may turn out to be a late planting, July 1, the seeds germinated and have grown tall and healthy, fed by Witt’s compost and Godecke’s enthusiasm.

It takes a good three months for sunflowers to mature and perhaps one month on top of that for the seeds to harden, pointing to an ideal harvest sometime the end of October. If it doesn’t freeze.

“My dad used to say we’ll always have a hard freeze by my mother’s birthday, Sept. 14, so we’re holding our breath now,” Godecke said.

“Even if it freezes tomorrow, we can still make a good silage for livestock,” Witt said. “Also, after harvest, which should only remove the flower heads, we’ll still use the rest of the plant for silage. It can also go to compost.”

“This is a pilot program, really,” Godecke interjected. “Once we understand what it takes to best grow the sunflowers, we’d like to increase the acreage significantly.”

– Hi-tech analysis. Witt’s techniques at Full Circle Compost have taken the backyard compost pile about a hundred steps farther to make literally tons of a highly nutritious commercial compost which is well regarded by farmers and gardeners alike.

As Godecke looks critically at the sunflowers, some of them 6 feet tall, perhaps wondering if this first crop will solve his initial problem of too-small seeds, Witt stares at the soil, already thinking of next year’s sunflower crop and how he can make it better.

“Soil should be considered to be the plant’s stomach,” he said. “We need to give it exactly what the specific plant growing in that soil needs to be its healthiest. Look at all the bees. The fact that the bees are here without putting in hives says that they are here because they want to be.”

“The presence of bees is a good indicator of the overall health of the crop,” Godecke said. “A bee knows.”

Witt also said that sunflowers are a good rotational crop, something any good farmer tries to be mindful of when planting crops year after year.

“Any plant adds to the soil through its rhizosphere,” he said. “Crop rotation is a key point to healthy soil.”

Songbird Survival Project administrator, Bob Domenici looked on with fascination.

“With Craig’s help we’ll enrich the soil with what the sunflower needs for next year,” he said.

After harvest with a combine which removes the seeds from the heads, the sunflower seeds will most likely have to harden a bit in one of the beautiful midnight blue silos on the property. How much seed do they expect from 8 acres of sunflowers?

“No idea,” they all shake heads and say.

n Birdseed Valley? With 160 acres available at Milky Way Farm, Godecke hasn’t ruled out eventually filling the land he grew up on with other bird seed crops such as milo and millet and formulating his own bird seed mix that would be healthy for his Carson Valley feathered friends.

It seems fitting for Godecke and Witt to be working together on this new phase of farming. Both men are what Clarence godecke might have called “modern thinkers,” and what Esther might have called “idea people,” and both are willing to stray off the worn path a bit to explore exciting possibilities in farming and to diversify, diversify, diversify.

“Our challenge is to illuminate the way, perhaps,” Witt said.

“You never know until you try,” Godecke said.

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