Close to 10,000 people attended the first Southern Maryland Sunflower Festival at Serenity Farm in Benedict over the Labor Day weekend.
The event was hosted at the farm by the nonprofit Farm Heritage Conservancy and supported by the Southern Maryland Heritage Area and the Rural Maryland Council as part of their missions.
Lucille W. Walker, executive director of SMHA, said the attendance was estimated from the number of vehicles that purchased entrance to the two-day event.
Those attending were provided scissors to cut the 6- to 12-inch blooms of their choice from the 6-foot-high stalks on the large field of sunflowers made accessible with paths cut through the field.
From walking around it was apparent that many brought children of all ages with them. And from talking with them, it seemed there were a fair number of attendees from outside Southern Maryland, as well as the state.
The adults appeared most interested in the flowers, either cutting them for use in their home or just enjoying the sunflowers’ beauty where they stood. The younger set seemed more drawn to the vintage farm pickup truck at the entrance to the sunflower field or the downsized petting zoo in the entry area. Some were not as thrilled to follow their parents on their search for the perfect bloom at the far end of the field.
Judging from the line of people patiently waiting their turn, everyone also enjoyed the hayride that circled the area. Others enjoyed the juried art show in the farm’s art barn and the theatrical event and live music at the farm’s store or the Heritage House and, of course, the food and drink.
“None of the vendors here have to pay anything,” Walker said. “We try to promote local people, local goods, local business and they donate a percentage, if they wish, to the Farm Heritage Conservancy.”
Heritage House, a rustic structure located at the entrance to Serenity Farm, sells products such as flowers, meat, fruit and vegetables that are produced by the farm.
The Farm Heritage Conservancy purchased and donated the seeds for the sunflowers earlier in the year, while the Serenity Farm staff donated labor, expertise and equipment to plant and cultivate the expansive crop, according to Walker.
Franklin Robinson Jr. is one of the co-owners of Serenity Farm and an on-site coordinator for the festival. Theresa Robinson is currently the manager of the farm.
The sunflower crop encompassed 6 acres of the 275-acre farm his family has owned and operated for over 50 years, according to Franklin Robinson Jr.
“We bought the farm in 1965, and have been farming in Maryland for eight generations, at least, probably more than that,” Robinson said.
When asked what happens to the flowers when the festival ends, Robinson said that they would be left for the birds to feed on. He noted that until the flocks finish off the flowers, they would still be available at the farm to anyone who wished to purchase them.
He said that 10% of the flower sales would be donated to charities and other like-minded organizations in Southern Maryland. Farm Heritage Conservancy does the same with all the proceeds of all its fundraising activities during the year, such as the Sunflower Festival, according to Robinson.
“We always do two [organizations] from Prince George’s, two from Anne Arundel, two from St. Mary’s, two from Charles and two from Calvert,” he said. “And Lord knows if we make enough money, we may do three for each county this year.”
The other 90% of the funds raised by Farm Heritage Conservancy goes to conservancy programs for education, cultivation and preservation, he added.
“To give back is our thing,” Robinson said. “Even though we are a charity we like to give part of our funds to other nonprofits in need.”
The SMHA is part of Maryland’s Open Space Program and is one of 13 heritage areas in the Maryland Heritage program.
Walker said SMHA partners with the Tri-County Council for Southern Maryland and that she is also on the board of the Farm Heritage Conservancy. SMHA is also known as Destination Southern Maryland.
The Farm Heritage Conservancy is dedicated “to conserve landscapes, preserve buildings, and interpret significant historical features of Serenity Farm and Southern Maryland,” according to literature from the organization.
It also notes that the conservancy advances archaeological, historical and agriculture education in the community and provide support for like-minded nonprofit organizations in Southern Maryland, according to the organization’s public documents.
Robinson said that archaeologists have uncovered several archaeological sites on Serenity Farm.
“Habitation has been on this property for thousands of years,” he said. “Julie Schlabitsky, chief archaeologist for the Maryland State Highway Administration, came out to our farm and that’s how we found our historical burial ground and all of that.”
The sites include a graveyard for African American slaves and encampments by the indigenous population. Native Americans lived for thousands of years on the farm’s sprawling acreage beside the Patuxent River prior to European colonization.
The farm was also one of the locations where invading British troops during the War of 1812 bivouacked after landing at Benedict prior to their sacking of Washington.