Story and photos by Adrienne McGee Sterrett
Find your happy place in Mercer County.
Fields of sunflowers greeted those who happened along Ross Road this summer, and another field is nearing readiness.
Corn and beans are so commonplace, they hardly draw looks. But fields of sunflowers — it’s an experiment that, so far, is paying off.
Vaughn Davis decided to try sunflowers on some land owned by his father, Lowell. His father, who formerly made a career in insurance, started buying land in the 1970s to recapture the farming lifestyle of his childhood. Lowell Davis, 79, now owns 600 acres in the area.
On the farm on Ross Road sits the Frysinger School, a one-room schoolhouse that served Dublin Township children, as well as Vaughn’s great-grandmother.
“The kids that went through this (schoolhouse) won World War I and World War II for us,” Lowell Davis said.
Lowell Davis began restoring the school in 2007, fixing the roof and evicting the raccoons from under it. The refinished oak floors still bear marks singed from embers flying from the potbellied stove that used to sit in the middle of the classroom. Maps hang from its walls above original walnut wainscotting — Lowell Davis is tickled by a reproduction map from 1804 showing Fort Wayne, Indiana, as part of Ohio — and a flag at the chalkboard has 34 stars, the correct number of states when the school opened.
“It should last a good many years,” Lowell Davis said.
It’s a piece of history in the modern era, serving as Vaughn Davis’ office and inspiration as it sits tucked into a row of newer grain bins. Vaughn was born in Celina, graduated from high school in Troy, earned a chemical engineering degree from Vanderbilt University and, after lots of travel domestically and overseas, settled in Maine with his family. But he always came home to help his dad harvest both traditional crops and the popcorn crop his father started about 10 years ago.
His mother is a Master Gardener, her father was a longtime exhibitor at county fairs, and his eldest son is a landscape designer.
“I think it’s in our blood. I’m not sure. It seems that way,” he said.
The side of his personality that earned an MBA in international marketing meshes with his love of gardening. He quickly put together that people in Maine enjoy buying sunflower seeds for birdfeeders, and land is available for that crop in Ohio.
He just had to figure out how to plant, raise and harvest them.
“Sort of on a lark, we planted two or three acres of sunflowers back of the schoolhouse,” Vaughn Davis said. He sold the harvest out immediately, using his Maine friends and contacts for wholesale sales. Last year, he increased the acreage. This year, he increased it again to 40 acres of sunflowers for seed. He also planted floral sunflowers for a partnership with Something from the Garden in Van Wert, owned by Juli Hamilton.
“She thought she could sell them. I thought I could grow them,” Vaughn Davis said.
After being introduced by a mutual friend, Vaughn Davis and Hamilton struck a deal. She sells his floral stems at farmers markets. These varieties lack the massive seedy centers.
On another whim this year, Vaughn Davis experimented with publicizing an event on Facebook. He opened his fields for free photo opportunities and cuttings, at $1 per stem.
“It was just sort of a Facebook viral event,” Vaughn Davis said. Hundreds responded, cars filling the barnyard.
“I think it makes people happy. It’s all about the experience,” he said.
Hamilton said there is a lot of potential.
“They’re just a happy flower. It doesn’t matter how straggly they look, they’re just still so pretty,” she said. “So to see a 40-acre field in mass bloom was stunning.”
This year, he planted about 25,000 flowers. Next year, he plans on 75,000 plants. And he will increase the Facebook photo events also, staggering plantings so they bloom at various times.
Vaughn Davis hasn’t worked as an engineer since 2014 and has fully embarked on his second career. He splits his time between Maine and Ohio — his wife’s finance career in Maine is booming — and dreams of a retail store with sunflower fields for both birdseed and human consumption and perhaps even a botanical garden. He is dabbling in sunflower oil, which goes hand in hand with the Davis’ popcorn. His goal is to make Ross Road a destination, fully embracing agritourism.
When asked why he chose Rockford: “Why go anywhere else? I wanted to make it personal. It was important for me to use land that was in the family to do this. There’s something about the story that I think resonates well.”
The popcorn label, in fact, boasts the GPS coordinates of the farm.
“I just think a lot of people want to know where their stuff comes from,” he said. “My life has become growing plants with economic possibilities.”
Vaughn Davis enjoys working for himself and poking at ideas as they materialize, from coming up with an easier-to-ship retail popcorn bag to having a friend in Maine design a logo for the business to retrofitting an electric motor on his great-grandfather’s grain cleaner. Oh, and he might start growing lavender in Maine.
“I’ve put my MBA to use,” he said, chuckling. “I expect this all to work. I think you have to believe that, or why start?”
• Follow Schoolhouse Farms 1862 on Facebook for details on a photo day in the sunflower fields. The final field for the season will bloom in mid-September. Photos may be taken for free; cuttings are $1 per stem.
• 5486 Ross Road, Rockford
• Schoolhouse Farms 1862 products such as popcorn and sunflower oils are available for purchase at Something from the Garden, 13492 U.S. 224, Van Wert. The store stocks flowers, produce and goods like jellies and honey. Follow Something from the Garden on Facebook for a farmers market schedule.