30 August 2002

HOWSUNFLOWERSSAW OFF

STORMCLOUDSOFDISASTER

Despite Englands dismal summer, a field full of sunshine has

blossomed on a Gloucestershire farm and it brings a smile to

the face of everyone who sees it. Michael Charity reports

WHEN Mussel End Farm near Sandhurst, Glos, was hit by foot-and- mouth, Simon Middle faced financial disaster as his cattle were wiped out by the disease.

Rather than let the grass grow under his feet, he eventually restocked to create a new 200-strong herd and set in motion diversification plans that included planting 90,000 sunflowers for a pick-your-own scheme at the farm gate.

Throughout August Simon, armed with a bundle of secateurs, has been greeting customers on the A38 between Gloucester and Tewksbury as they pull in to collect their own little bit of summer – at the bargain price of 50p/bloom.

"Every single person – and they usually have kids with them – who comes into the field, leaves with a smile on their face. It is such a joy to do something like this," says Simon as he starts to explain why he grows the crop. "Last year I went with my wife Louise to a Wiltshire farm to buy new stock. On arrival we were amazed to see this field full of sunflowers. My wife asked if she could have a few blooms and the owner told her to help herself. Just a couple of weeks later I happened to visit a florist and was surprised to discover they were charging £2/bloom for the same thing. This gave me the idea to grow sunflowers for pick-your-own."

The colourful plants have attracted much interest from passers-by and this was reflected by the constant arrival of eager purchasers on the first picking day. Among the first customers in the field were Nikki Trigg and Fiona Wheeler. Asked why they were buying them Nikki said, "I just love sun-flowers, they are so cheerful and they just make me laugh.

I am going to give them as gifts to family and friends."

When the flowers are finished Simon will shut the field for a few weeks until the heads turn to seed and then open again and sell them as bird feed.

Simon and his family have put the dark days of F&M behind them. They have developed a successful on-farm butchers business and at this years Three Counties Show, he and his wife won the prestigious Best Farm Award for Glos. "We certainly seem to have turned the corner as far as the farm is concerned and now our sunflower venture is also blooming."

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