Advertisement

358-How a Volunteer Sunflower Turned a Flower Farmer into a Seed Breeder

| Grow, Podcast

Life has thrown Steve Kaufer some curveballs, but with some smart pivoting and serendipity, he’s become a successful seed breeder and seed farmer, earning the moniker “Sunflower Steve.” He joins me on the podcast this week to share his story and explain how a volunteer sunflower that grew in his field in 2007 set him on a new path years later.

Steve is the proprietor of Sunflower Steve Seed Co. in western Wisconsin, close to the Minnesota border. He had been raising cut flowers on his farm since 2000, but in the past couple of years, he has been raising flowers to collect and sell the seeds instead. Before all this, his background was not in farming but in sales and advertising, so he has had to learn a lot about farming through trial-and-error and first-hand experience. 

 

Steve Kaufer aka Sunflower Steve

Steve Kaufer, aka Sunflower Steve, the proprietor of Sunflower Steve Seed Co. (Photo Courtesy of Sunflower Steve)

 

My garden manager, Tobi, ordered a bunch of Steve’s seeds to plant here at the GardenFarm ™. I was already familiar with his seeds from when I saw Steve on “CBS Sunday Morning” with Jane Pauley in September last year. Correspondent Mo Rocca interviewed Steve in a segment about sunflowers and the people who grow them for seeds and stems. Steve shared a story of how he found a “rogue” sunflower in his field that was a different color than the typical yellow, and he saved the seeds to see if he could grow more. 

Steve also makes sunflower murals out of cut sunflowers. He’s done a boat that he can pretend to sit in and catch sunflower fish, and Pac-Man, among many others that are hits on his Instagram account, @Sun_flower_steve. He also made a 16-foot-by-16-foot “CBS Sunday Morning “logo as a special treat for the crew.

Steve enjoys seeing photos of people from all over the country, and even all over the world, growing and enjoying his sunflowers.  

Meet Sunflower Steve

Steve grew up in the Minnesota suburbs. He always loved the outdoors and the wild, and he learned to hunt and fish from his father and grandfather. At the age of 10, he fell in love with birds of prey and falconry. He got his falconry license at the age of 14, becoming the youngest licensed falconer at the time. 

When he and his wife moved to Wisconsin, they wanted to better their land for wildlife. A friend who is a fellow falconer and a biology teacher introduced him to native prairie flowers and grasses. As a teacher, his friend was permitted to collect prairie seeds with his class, and Steve would join them. Steve planted native seeds on his own land.

The last great bastion of native prairie in the Midwest is the railroad grades because the railroads bought up the easements — 120 feet from the center of the tracks on either side — so the farmers could never plow those areas, Steve explains. Native remnants remain that are hundreds of years old. 

In 1999, Steve’s job was downsized due to a corporate merger. Having a spare bedroom full of saved native prairie seeds, he used that time to plant them. He was already growing cream Baptisia from a native prairie pioneer cemetery. “Everything in there is 100% native, 100% local ecotype,” he says of the cemetery.

He was also growing blue Baptisia, which he had purchased the seeds for. He didn’t want the cream and the blue to cross-pollinate and hybridize, and he intended to sell the cream seeds to his friends at Prairie Moon Nursery

Steve asked his daughters to cut down the blue Baptisia before the cream Baptisia flowered. He told them to just leave the cuttings on the ground, but they had a better idea. His daughters put the cuttings into a vase and placed it on the mantel. 

 

Baptisia sphaerocarpa grows on Sunflower Steve's farm.

Baptisia sphaerocarpa growing on Steve’s farm. (Photo Courtesy of Sunflower Steve)

“Being unemployed at the time, I was thinking, how can I make money on that?” he says of the cut flowers. “And I was thinking, well, I know the cream Baptisia, I can sell the seeds, but maybe somebody would be interested in blue Baptisia for flowers. Now this is 1999. I don’t think anybody really even knew what Baptisia was back then. So I took it to my hometown florist that I went to as a kid.”

Steve told the florist, “You owe me 10 minutes of your time” for all the flowers he bought there as a kid for Mother’s Day, prom and “I screwed up.”

The florist had never seen blue Baptisia before and was happy to take Steve’s stems.

“So that whole first summer, he kind of helped me just figure out what worked in flower solution, temperatures and coolers and things like that,” Steve says. “So I would bring him stems, and we would test them at his floral shop. And so that whole first year was just kind of a test run.”

In his second year selling stems, he grew Liatris (blazing star), Zizia aurea (golden Alexanders), Pycnanthemum (mountain mint) and other native plants for five flower shops. He didn’t sell many “main event” flowers, he says, but accent flowers that blew the clients away.

That year, he noticed some Celosia (cock’s comb) at the barbershop in town while getting a haircut. The barber’s sister, Cindy, grows Celosia and sells it to Twin Cities retailers. Steve couldn’t get through to Cindy on the phone because she was so busy with all of her clients, so he dropped in at her office with golden Alexanders, which he says look like yellow Queen Anne’s lace with a terminal ray of flowers on top. This tactic worked, because Cindy took Steve under her wing. He went from selling Cindy 50 or 100 stems here and there every once in a while that summer to bringing her 300 to 400 stems two to three times a week. 

By the end of summer, Cindy asked Steve if he could grow sunflowers for her. That next summer, he planted 6,000 or 7,000 sunflowers in sequential planting. He would later land as clients farmers’ markets and two big wholesalers. By 2012, he was supplying 25,000 to 30,000 stems a week for grab-and-go bouquets at grocery stores. 

Steve turned his focus toward high volume, high value grab-and-go bouquets with peonies, lilacs, Hydrangeas, sunflowers, Zinnias and Ilex (winterberry) for wholesale. He and his wife went from growing 40 to 50 different species to about a dozen that they grow best. That way, they could avoid the trials and tribulations of aphid and mildew disasters and the other things that can go wrong.

Steve credits his wife with taking on the “real job” that allowed him to be entrepreneurial and literally weather the storm when disasters happen, like the few years when a storm two weeks into the season wiped out his business for the rest of the year. She also did the wedding work when they were still doing flowers for weddings.

 

Sunflowers cut for sale

In the cut flower business, a severe weather event can ruin the harvest for the rest of the season. (Photo Courtesy of Sunflower Steve)

 

The Volunteer That Changes Steve’s Life

Having no background in farming, Steve didn’t think to do things like enriching the soil annually. 

“I found out by about 2006 that my sunflowers were getting shorter and the heads were getting smaller because I just kept pulling all the nutrients out of the soil and didn’t replenish it all,” he says.

A friend and fellow farmer asked him how many times he’s used a cover crop, and Steve didn’t even know what a cover crop was at the time. 

“I grew up in the suburbs. I didn’t have a clue,” Steve says. “So I planted a cover crop in one of the big fields I had been growing sunflowers in, and I let it idle for a year.”

Even though he hadn’t planted any flowers that year — 2007 — about two dozen flowers “volunteered” in the field. This baffled Steve because the seeds he grew were sterile F1 hybrids. 

One sunflower caught his eye because it was big and fluffy, like the sunflowers Vincent van Gogh painted in 1888 and 1889 in Arles, France. It looked like the sunflower variety known as Teddy Bear, but it was gold with maroon going down every throat. That fall, he collected the flowerhead to check for seeds. There were 572 that he removed from that flowerhead, and only 12 had a germ inside the seed. He put the viable seeds in a bag and stashed them away, forgetting about them until the following year when he went to pull out his Johnny’s Selected Seeds catalog and the bag fell out of the cupboard.

Steve planted the 12 seeds in a flat, and they all germinated. He planted them out in a field, and 10 came up with stems but no heads. One came up that looked just like the parent plant, and the last was maroon colored with lemon throats. 

Steve started breeding sunflowers as a hobby — something different than the grind of planting 300,000 sunflowers a year. By year four he had about 3,000 saved seeds. He planted all the seeds out at once, and a huge storm wiped out nearly all of the plants.  About 100 survived. Steve learned he should hold back a third of his seed stock instead of planting everything in case something like that happens again. 

He saved seeds from those 100 flowers and started growing them out again. He noticed that the super cool, big, fluffy sunflowers weren’t producing much seed at all — one or two seeds each — while his semi-double sunflowers had a lot more pollen and produced a lot more seeds.

The offspring of the semi-doubles would be unpredictable — about a third each of singles, semi-doubles, and doubles. He moved and replanted the semi-doubles to be next to the sunflowers that he really liked, and he rubbed them together to pollinate them. Then he started to get exponentially more seed than he had been. 

His mindset at the time was that he would have an advantage in the cut flower market because only he was growing these stems. He wasn’t even thinking about seed selling.

By 2016, Steve started flagging certain colors and separating them into different fields. In one case, he planted 10,000 sunflower seeds, and every day, with a machete, cut down the flowers that didn’t look like what he wanted. (This selection and removal process is known as roguing.) By the end of two weeks, only 80 or 90 stems remained — but those few had the genes he was looking for. He calls this variety “Marley.”

 

A unique sunflower on Sunflower Steve's farm.

A unique sunflower on Sunflower Steve’s Farm. (Photo Courtesy of Sunflower Steve)

 

Steve Discovers He Has Something Special

As Steve’s kids aged out of working on the farm, it became harder and harder to find laborers. He was fortunate to have two young employees who stayed with him from the time they were in ninth grade through when they graduated college. He wrestled over what he would do as he had these new and exclusive sunflower varieties but no more staff. Then COVID hit.

COVID created a massive seed shortage as people who were stuck at home decided to garden — and not just vegetables. Flower seeds were also in high demand. Steve tried to order 500,000 Sunrich sunflower seeds only to find that the supplier had just 50,000 left in stock.

Steve called a seed supplier he hadn’t used since 2012 to try to get the other 450,000 seeds he was looking for. Luckily, they had seeds in stock for him. On that same call, he asked if that supplier would be interested in buying his seeds of his new varieties. 

The seed company trialed Steve seeds in California but decided they were not refined enough yet for what they required. 

Steve tried reaching out to Erin Benzakein of Floret Flower Farm, and she replied. They hit it off, speaking for two hours on the phone about flowers and seed breeding.

“We were bouncing stuff off each other, and she asked me a question I hadn’t asked myself in a long time. She said, ‘What do you want to do with this?’” Steve recalls. “‘What do you want to do?’ And I thought, I don’t know.”

After some consideration, he called her back and asked Erin to grow out the seeds for him. He visited Floret and sent Erin seeds to trial. She grew the sunflowers and told Steve, “You don’t need us. You can do this on your own.”

Steve was skeptical, and he also knew that it would take years to refine the seeds enough into uniform F1 hybrids that commercial cut-flower growers would want them. But Erin explained to him that 90 percent of her business is home gardeners, and home gardeners would love a variety mix of semi-doubles, doubles and singles. 

“I was very narrow focused,” Steve said. “So she opened my whole world up.”

He learned that having 10,000 little customers on the internet is more complicated than having five big customers buying cut flowers. “There’s so many more moving parts,” he says. “So it’s been a little bit of a surprise from there. But I’m learning just like when I was a cut-flower grower, and it’s fun.”

Nicole from Flower Hill Farm and Erin also convinced him that he needed to get on Instagram, and he quickly gained thousands of followers.

“I was astonished. I’m like, really? That many people want to see my little flower,” Steve says. “And it’s been a fun ride. Like, I can’t even tell you how many cool people I’ve met and experiences I’ve had because of that one flower.”

 

Sunflower variety

Erin Benzakein of Floret Flower Farm told Steve that he had something really special and could sell his seeds to gardeners who would be happy to have a sunflower mix. Home gardeners are not seeking the uniformity that commercial cut flower growers want. (Photo Courtesy of Sunflower Steve)

 

Saving a Summer Camp

 In 2018, Steve and his wife bought the Christian youth summer camp that his daughters had attended in northern Wisconsin. The 220-acre camp was at risk of closing, and they bought it to save it, which they did. The camp broke even while serving 700 to 800 kids annually. But then COVID hit. They had a huge camp, and a huge debt, and no campers.

Jessica Sowards of Roots & Refuge, a farm in the midlands of South Carolina, invited him on her podcast so he could sell his seeds to benefit the camp. From that one podcast, he sold 1,900 seed packets at $100 each — and also sent every purchaser a second packet the following year for each packet they bought in 2020. 

Steve had agreed to plant a forest if they sold 1,000 packets. With that goal almost doubled, it meant the camp would plant 1,000 trees on 5 acres that had been logged to pay the bills. In the end, they planted 2,000 trees and called it the Legacy Forest, with a plaque dedicated to all the donors. 

In 2023, Steve opened a seed sale on April 1 at noon. By 12:06 p.m., the sale was over, with all 7,000 seed packets sold. He hand-packed another 1,000 packets and quickly sold those too, at $14 a packet.

“I was almost in tears because I couldn’t believe that people bought it, and it went so fast and it was such a great feeling,” Steve says.

 

Sunflower Steve's different sunflowers

Steve sold mixed sunflower seeds as a fundraiser to save the Christian youth summer camp that his family bought. For every pack sold, the camp agreed to plant a tree. (Photo Courtesy of Sunflower Steve)

 

Life as a Seed Seller

Steve says that because his seeds are open pollinated, he expects that within a few years, some other company will be selling his variety with another name on it.

For the 2024 seed stock, he doesn’t have as much seed as he intended to have because, for the first time in 23 years, his farm experienced a drought.  He thinks between 50 and 60 percent of the seeds never filled out due to lack of moisture. Still, he sold in excess of 30,000 seed packets.

“It’s still farming,” Steve says. “The weather dictates how well you do.”

He also had four hail storms this past summer, but was still able to harvest seeds. Those same storms would have made 90% of his cut flowers unsalable. 

This month Steve is fulfilling orders for his Van Gogh’s Fantasy Mix. His next sale will begin in the middle of April. Again, it will be a benefit for their youth camp. They want to build a small chapel and have other improvements in the works. He intends to release between 750 and 1,000 packets of Marley and sell them for about $75 each. These seeds are fifth generation and two or three years away from a wide release.

Steve is working on new varieties that he plans to release to the public, including variegated flowers. He hand-pollinated these varieties for three to four hours a day and put bags over the flowers he liked to prevent unwanted pollination. “The variegated ones are blowing me away,” he says. 

He is also breeding Baptisias that he is excited about. “I’ve got two here that I’m absolutely in love with,” he says. “One is a cream Baptisia —  Baptisia leucophaea, Baptisia sphaerocarpa, the yellow, and Baptisia australias. It’s a triple cross.”

He got 40 flower spikes in a square-foot area, and it doesn’t get super tall. It’s under 2 feet tall and a beautiful lavender color, he says.

Steve says raising seeds is as much work as raising cut flowers, but the hours are better and the product is less perishable.  

One thing about farming that people don’t realize is that they don’t often see the “dirty 30.” Even if you love your job, there is 30% of the work that you don’t enjoy but must do in order to enjoy the other 70%. This is especially true of farming, which is joyful work, but hard work.

 

Sunflower Steve with a sunflower mural

Steve with the CBS News Sunday Morning logo that he made when Mo Rocca visited his farm. (Photo Courtesy of Sunflower Steve)

 

I hope you enjoyed my conversation with Sunflower Steve Kaufer. If you haven’t listened yet, you can do so now by clicking the Play button on the green bar near the top of this post.

Have you had success saving sunflower seeds? Let us know in the comments below.

Links & Resources

Some product links in this guide are affiliate links. See full disclosure below.

Episode 125: Saving Seeds: The Basics, the Benefits and Beyond

Episode 149: Southern Exposure Seed Exchange: A Seed Company with Purpose over Profit

Episode 182: Organic Urban Seed Farming, with San Diego Seed Company

Episode 269: The Ultimate Guide to Flower Growing, with Jenny Rose Carey

Episode 315: Succession Planting with Flowers

Episode 351: The Cut Flower Handbook, with Lisa Mason Ziegler

Episode 355: Growing Flowers, Seeds and a Business, with Erin Benzakein of Floret Flower Farm 

joegardener Online Gardening Academy™: Popular courses on gardening fundamentals; managing pests, diseases & weeds; seed starting and more.

joegardener Online Gardening Academy Organic Vegetable Gardening: My new premium online course. The course is designed to be a comprehensive guide to starting, growing, nurturing and harvesting your favorite vegetables, no matter what you love to eat, no matter where you live, no matter your level of gardening experience.

joegardener Online Gardening Academy Master Seed Starting: Everything you need to know to start your own plants from seed — indoors and out. 

joegardener Online Gardening Academy Beginning Gardener Fundamentals: Essential principles to know to create a thriving garden.

joegardener Online Gardening Academy Growing Epic Tomatoes: Learn how to grow epic tomatoes with Joe Lamp’l and Craig LeHoullier. 

joegardener Online Gardening Academy Master Pests, Diseases & Weeds: Learn the proactive steps to take to manage pests, diseases and weeds for a more successful garden with a lot less frustration. Just $47 for lifetime access!

joegardener Online Gardening Academy Perfect Soil Recipe Master Class: Learn how to create the perfect soil environment for thriving plants.

Earthbound Expeditions: Discover South Africa with Joe Lamp’l

 joegardener Newsletter

joegardener Facebook

joegardener Facebook Group

joegardener Instagram

joegardener Pinterest

joegardener Twitter

joegardenerTV YouTube

Growing a Greener World®   

SunflowerSteveSeedCo.com 

Sunflower Steve on Instagram: @Sun_flower_steve

The {Farmer} & The Florist Interview: Steve Kaufer | Floret Flower Farm

Sunflowers in Bloom | CBS Sunday Morning

Proven Winners ColorChoice – Our podcast episode sponsor and Brand Partner of joegardener.com 

Territorial Seed Company – Our podcast episode sponsor and Brand Partner of joegardener.com – Enter code JOE2024 for 10% off your order

Soil3Our podcast episode sponsor and Brand Partner of joegardener.com  Enter code JOEGARDENER24 for $5 off

Greenhouse Megastore – Our podcast episode sponsor and Brand Partner of joegardener.com – Enter code JG10 for 10% off your first order

Disclosure: Some product links in this guide are affiliate links, which means we get a commission if you purchase. However, none of the prices of these resources have been increased to compensate us, and compensation is not an influencing factor on their inclusion here. The selection of all items featured in this post and podcast was based solely on merit and in no way influenced by any affiliate or financial incentive, or contractual relationship. At the time of this writing, Joe Lamp’l has professional relationships with the following companies who may have products included in this post and podcast: Corona Tools, Milorganite, Soil3, Greenhouse Megastore, Territorial Seed Company, Earth’s Ally, Proven Winners ColorChoice and Dramm. These companies are either Brand Partners of joegardener.com and/or advertise on our website. However, we receive no additional compensation from the sales or promotion of their product through this guide. The inclusion of any products mentioned within this post is entirely independent and exclusive of any relationship.

About Joe Lamp'l

Joe Lamp’l is the creator and “joe” behind joe gardener®. His lifetime passion and devotion to all things horticulture has led him to a long-time career as one of the country’s most recognized and trusted personalities in organic gardening and sustainability. That is most evident in his role as host and creator of Emmy Award-winning Growing a Greener World®, a national green-living lifestyle series on PBS currently broadcasting in its tenth season. When he’s not working in his large, raised bed vegetable garden, he’s likely planting or digging something up, or spending time with his family on their organic farm just north of Atlanta, GA.

• Leave a Comment •

Get my (FREE!) eBook
5 Steps to Your Best Garden Ever:
Why What You Do Now Matters Most!

By joining my list, you’ll also get weekly access to my gardening resource guides, eBooks, and more!

•Are you a joe gardener?•

Use the hashtag #iamajoegardener to let us know!