Family finds joy in fields of gold

Haidee VandenbergheCountryman

It had been a dry and disastrous season on the Starcevich's Salmon Gums farm, but when the heavens decided to dump 100mm for the month of October, flowers - namely sunflowers - were foremost on Darren and his wife Sam's minds.

Their crops yielded just 200kg and Darren said 2011 was their worst season on record, but just a couple of months later and their paddocks look blooming beautiful - literally.

It's the second time the family has planted sunflowers out in the red loam soils of Salmon Gums, after rain and hail during harvest in 2008 left the Starcevichs with sodden soils.

Back then they sowed 50 hectares of sunflowers in mid-December and after harvesting them in August were pleased with their yield of 360kg a hectare

"The price was pretty good then, I think we got about $900 a tonne, landed, in Perth," Darren said.

"It worked out that it well and truly paid for itself."

So when the opportunity came up to sow sunflowers once again, Darren and Sam didn't hesitate.

This time they sowed 100ha of the variety Sunbird 7 in early November into a barley paddock that had been grazed off. An 18ha section of the paddock was put into lablab beans but Darren said they failed and the area has now been left as pasture.

When the paddock goes back into crop this season, the couple will have an indication of how much nutrients and moisture the sunflowers use compared to the 18ha of pasture.

The flowers have received no fertiliser, only a knockdown before planting and have received just 30mm of rain since germination.

"Because we're fairly limited with what we can spray them with they're not good at all for a break crop, but it's just a bit of cashflow really," Darren said.

"These are the most drought-tolerant variety and they seemed like the best ones for what we wanted to do.

"There's a big patch that didn't come up in the paddock, but then again the heads look bigger than they did last time, so I'm hoping for a yield of maybe 350 to 400kg again, all going well.

"If we can do what we did last time, or a little better, I think we still should get the $300ha mark which is worth doing."

For his sons Lochlan, Tim and Brody, the sunflowers make a novel change out in paddocks better known for wheat production.

"The kids they think they're all right, they were out there checking the sunflowers all the time," Darren said.

"(The paddocks) a bit nicer than the rest of the crops looked this year that's for sure."

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