BISMARCK, N.D. (KXNET) — Over the course of One-Day ND Destinations, we tend to focus primarily on the parks, towns, and notable monuments of western North Dakota that one can make a day out of visiting. In doing so, though, we often find ourselves speeding right past the spectacular sights that can be observed on the way to these locations. This week, we’d like to focus on the state’s sunflower fields — a hallmark of North Dakota tourism and photography, but one that does not always get the recognition it deserves. And while it may be far too late to see these golden blooms now, there’s always time to look back at their history, as well as forward to another sunflower season armed with new knowledge and appreciation.

Image Credit: North Dakota Department of Commerce

No matter where one travels throughout North Dakota, there’s a strong chance that they will come upon a field of sunflowers during the journey. These golden rows of blooming plants can often be seen decorating some of our state’s roadways and rural landscapes, and you’re almost guaranteed to have passed one before on even a short road trip through the state. While these towering groves are no doubt synonymous with North Dakota, there is far more to them than one would originally expect. To begin the final stretch of One-Day ND Destinations for the year, we spoke to the North Dakota Tourism Department to see what exactly makes these fields so special — and what they mean to the people of our state.

Before exploring the history of sunflower tourism, it’s important to remember that the crop isn’t just nice to look at — sunflowers are also a major part of ND’s agricultural climate. North Dakota is best known for its production of what are known as ‘confectionery’ or ‘non-oil’ sunflower seeds — which are generally used in cooking, included in bird feed, or eaten as a snack sold on shelves nationwide. When both the production of confectionery and ‘Oilseed’ sunflowers (where the seeds are used to create sunflower oil) are added together, ND boasts the country’s largest levels of sunflower production — and this year alone, farmers planted over 600,000 acres of these canary-colored crops. As far as the Tourism Department is concerned, the fact that one of the state’s agricultural powerhouses also happens to be extremely photogenic is just an added benefit to their prevalence.

Image Credit: North Dakota Department of Tourism

“North Dakota is an agricultural giant,” explains North Dakota Tourism’s Social Strategist Alicia Jolliffe, “with 90% of our land area being farms and ranches. We lead the nation in the production of multiple crops, sunflowers being one of them. This makes us an excellent destination to experience agritourism because it represents an important commodity to the world, and the work the people of our state are dedicating their lives to. Plus, it helps serve two of the state’s top three industries: Tourism and Agriculture.”

This begs the question, though: how exactly did this important crop take on a second life as a photo op? The answer is, surprisingly, not one initially developed by the Tourism Board itself. Rather, the decision to focus on the flower came from a series of requests from both residents and tourists — many of whom were hoping to find a perfect field to propose to their significant other.

“We chose to focus on sunflowers specifically a few years back,” Joloffe recalls, “when we were receiving multiple phone calls and questions on social about where to find sunflower fields. We decided to reach out to the National Sunflower Association located in Mandan to see if there was any way that we could share locations of specific fields. Their members and other local farmers were excited by the idea, and offered to help support the project.”

As these interactions with the National Sunflower Association imply, despite the involvement of the Tourism Board, the sunflower fields that appear in many of North Dakota’s promotional photographs and videos do not actually have much collaboration with the state government. These fields are still owned, cared for, and maintained by the farmers — who can volunteer to have their sunflower crops and GPS Coordinates listed on the ND Tourism Board’s website.

“The sunflower fields are all locally owned by the farmers,” Joloffe explains. “During promotions, we gather interested producers who would like to participate early in the year. They share the locations of their fields which we add to the web page. From there, we stay in weekly contact with producers about the bloom stage of their fields. We update the fields by percentages, since they seem to be the most understandable to broader audiences. This way, locals and visitors can plan their trips to see the fields at their brightest.”

Image Credit: North Dakota Department of Commerce

Those seeking to visit the sunflower fields themselves, whether now at the tail end of sunflower season or during next year’s golden time, certainly have plenty of places to choose from. The question, then, becomes the ideal months and days to visit. Typically, this time varies depending on the weather and planting dates — but in general, late July and early to mid-August are deemed as the best times to go sunflower spotting.

However, whichever time that tourists choose, it’s important that they follow the rules while doing so. While many farmers are fine with visitors taking pictures of their fields, driving into or entering them is another story entirely, and ensuring guests maintain proper conduct when out and about is of major importance to the Board — especially out of respect for the landowners who have volunteered their fields for the tourism program.

“Making sure tourists and locals respect the fields has always been a priority in our messaging and the creative ways we use to promote North Dakota,” Joliffe states. “We consistently include in our messaging that fields are not to be entered without the landowner’s permission, and never include photos of people entering the fields. Our audience does a great job of reminding others as well in the social space. When we receive requests to take pictures in the fields we are promoting, we ask the landowner if they are comfortable with us sharing their contact info, and the rest is up to them. No producers have shared any frustration or issues with the promotion of their fields in the around five years we’ve been providing the Sunflower Map.”

Image Credit: North Dakota Department of Commerce

This focus on ‘sunflower tourism’, as we call it, has become a major success: photographs, videos, and stories of the spectacular sunflower fields throughout North Dakota are widespread throughout social media, and they serve to not only illustrate the beauty of the sunflower, but just how prevalent they are in both North Dakota’s industry and culture. The fields have even become so popular that they are indirectly responsible for the creation of National Sunflower Day in 2023 — which takes place on the first Saturday in August. Interestingly, despite the thunderous success of this tourism initiative, the department still believes, that the agricultural aspect always comes first.

“Analytically,” Joliffe states, “the North Dakota Sunflower Map is one of the strongest social campaigns we do all year. Audiences are extremely interested in seeing the fields based on our engagements and website traffic. Last, year ND Tourism and the National Sunflower Association were awarded the Amplifier Award for Marketing Excellence at the North Dakota Travel Conference.  We’ve also used them for promotional events, presentation materials, media, and television, and have generally become a core part of our promotions as a state. However, the best use of the fields is still to harvest and produce the plants within — and to feed the world like they were intended.”

Even at the end of one’s journey to the sunflower fields, their time with the golden flowers does not necessarily have to end once they return to their vehicle. At many of the fields, small themed mailboxes contain packets of sunflower seeds for visitors to take with them (provided by the Department of Tourism) to eat or plant as they see fit.

Image Credit: North Dakota Department of Tourism

When all is said and done, though, what exactly is it that makes sunflowers in particular so important to North Dakota tourism? The department believes that it is a combination of state pride, symbolism, and stunning visuals — especially when pertaining to the ideals of hard work and ‘North Dakota Nice’. Even the map itself, Joliffe states, is a testament to both the friendly nature and impressive agriculture that North Dakotans are evidently known for.

“Personally,” she notes, “I think this goes back to North Dakota pride. In 2022, you couldn’t find more sunflower fields anywhere else in the country than North Dakota. It’s a time of year that catches everyone’s eyes — if not their hearts as well. And it doesn’t just celebrate the hard work of our people, but their extremely welcoming attitude. Our producers will often share stories with me of running into visitors in awe of their fields. One of my favorites from last year was when a local producer ran into visitors from Germany, who immediately thought they were in trouble because the landowner was approaching them. However, all he did was offer to take time out of his busy day to take them on a tractor ride, and see the prettiest part of his fields. If that isn’t a glimpse into North Dakota nice, I don’t know what is. The Sunflower Map is just a cumulation of so many things that make North Dakota a great place to visit and live.”

Image Credit: North Dakota Department of Commerce

Now that Fall is descending upon the state, the sunflowers are beginning to shy away from the cold and frequent storms — or worse, wither away until the next blooming season. Still, there’s nothing saying that we can’t appreciate the photographs and legacy that this year’s spectacular sunflowers have left us — and to look forward to those that will be popping up again come the summer of 2024. You can find a complete list of sunflower fields throughout North Dakota that are participating in the field program on this page.