Six-year-old Silvia Portillo gazed up at her parents Sunday afternoon as they fiddled with the big white baseball cap on her dark hair and wiped sweat from her forehead. Fat bumblebees lazily loped through the air, occasionally landing on one of the blooms that towered above the little girl.
They were standing in a field at Valley View Acres, a 154-acre farm in Middletown that makes most of its profit selling soybeans, corn and hay. But it wasn’t the farm’s bread and butter crops that prompted the Portillo family to drive from their home in Frederick.
“We wanted to see the flowers,” Silvia said, breaking into a huge gap-toothed grin.
Next weekend will mark the third in Valley View Acre’s five-week-long sunflower festival. Once per year, the farm’s owner, Dale Haines, welcomes visitors to tour patches of the bright yellow flowers and pluck bouquets to take home. He got the idea for the festival about four years ago, when he read about a similar event in a farming magazine.
“We just wanted to do something different,” he explained, smiling from beneath a green baseball cap.
So, the farm planted sunflowers in one of its wildflower fields and threw up a post on social media, inviting people to come by Valley View Acres to pick flowers for a day. Despite how last-minute it felt to Haines and his staff, the event attracted a fair crowd.
And it’s only grown from there.
On Sunday, the smell of fresh-cut french fries hovered over a little red barn, where the farm was also selling hamburgers, hot dogs and soft pretzels. Children gathered around a small plastic screen, watching in amazement as hordes of bees buzzed about the sheet of honeycomb contained inside. A slight breeze buffeted the clouds of bubbles that drifted over the grassy field.
Nearby, Amanda Farmer sat on a white wicker chair, her face shaded by a wide-brimmed, beige hat. Although she has worked at Valley View Acres for about five years, neither she nor Haines knew how exactly to describe her job title. She does a little bit of everything, she said, laughing.
She remembers the first official sunflower festival the farm held three years ago. That was really the “beginning of everything,” she said, smiling. After that, the farm also started hosting annual fall and Christmas festivals.
“The response from the community — and really from the whole tri-state area — has been wonderful,” she said.
Farmer always hoped she’d wind up working on a farm. When she married her husband last year, she told him she was doing it to take his last name, she said with a chuckle. Some days, when she looks over the rolling hills of Valley View Acres, she finds it hard to believe that this is her life.
She loves bringing her husband’s 6-year-old daughter to the fields that have become her second home. During the farm’s sunflower season, the little girl will run down the hill to pick a flower and dash back to her step-mom to show it off. By the time she gets back to Farmer, she’s dropped the bloom a few times. Usually, it’s missing all of its petals.
“It’s really adorable,” Farmer said, beaming. “Just her being able to be outside is so important — just kind of discovering the world that way. Hopefully I can instill the same love of it that I have in her a little bit.”
Even beyond Farmer’s 6-year-old helper, the sunflower festival is a family operation. At the bottom of the hill, Haines’ step-son mans the admission tent. His wife is in the concession stand. On Sunday, she was dressed the part, wearing a sunflower T-shirt, sunflower earrings and a sunflower scrunchie.
Behind another little barn where the farm sells antiques during festivals, Haines’ mother, Delores Haines, was helping children paint miniature birdhouses and rocks. When she suggested the event include a crafts table, she was immediately put in charge of it, she said, laughing.
Although her son only purchased the first 116 acres of Valley View in 1995, Haines had been in the area long before that. She grew up on the farm next door, then moved to another house down the street when she was 18. In all, she’s spent 80 years living in the same half-mile radius.
“It’s wonderful,” she said, smiling as a little girl sitting across from her dabbed paint on a little birdhouse.