Sunflower Has Big Plans for Small Farm

Fall harvest season recently ended for the two-acre farm started this year by Sunflower Farmers Market, but company founder Mike Gilliland already sounds excited about next spring. The Longmont, Colo.-area farm will be adding a new greenhouse this winter, and when the farm expands from two acres to 12 next year, visitors will have a lot more to explore. We have bees that we'll be adding, and we're

Fall harvest season recently ended for the two-acre farm started this year by Sunflower Farmers Market, but company founder Mike Gilliland already sounds excited about next spring. The Longmont, Colo.-area farm will be adding a new greenhouse this winter, and when the farm expands from two acres to 12 next year, visitors will have a lot more to explore.

“We have bees that we'll be adding, and we're also looking at adding some hops and barley and brewing our own beer, and maybe adding some farm animals in the spring and making our own cheese,” Gilliland said. “We're just trying a little bit of everything.”

Gilliland, who also founded Wild Oats natural-food stores with his wife, Libby Cook, in the 1980s, said that the farm was developed primarily as a learning center for Sunflower's customers.

“I had a personal interest in doing this for a long time,” he said. “I actually used to do [some farming] about 20 years ago. The intention for us was to use it as a learning center — offer classes and tours. Our first year just wrapped up, but we had a lot of interest and made a lot of progress.”

The company has said it eventually hopes to plant 40 acres of crops on the land, but the farm lacks the scale to be a major supplier to Sunflower Farmers Market, the natural and organic food discounter with more than 20 stores in Colorado, Arizona, Texas, New Mexico, Utah and Nevada. Currently, it has the capacity to supply only about 2% of the chain's produce needs, Gilliland said.

But, the company does plan to highlight items made on the farm and sold in its stores.

“This was our first year, so the program wasn't totally developed. But, the intention is to have some type of Sunflower Farm logo on everything that we sell from the farm.”

Sunflower Farmers Market has grown from a single-store operation in 2002 to more than 20 locations today. In an interview earlier this year with SN sister publication Natural Foods Merchandiser, Gilliland said that his company's focus on natural and organic foods at discount prices had put it in a good position to weather the current economy.

“For us it's kind of good news, bad news,” he told NFM. “The good news is we're pretty well positioned for the angst that's out there — people who want to shop affordably while shopping naturally are shifting over to us. … I think most natural-foods customers are pretty committed, but they are more price-conscious these days.”

Although the company's territory is spread throughout cities in the Southwest and Rocky Mountain regions, Gilliland said there are currently no plans to start a new farm/learning center near another cluster of stores. For now, the focus is on teaching interested customers where their food comes from.

“It's been fun, and people have been interested in it,” he told SN. “I think people appreciate learning about the connection between what they buy in the supermarket and how it's made. That's the overall intention of the project.”