Meet the farmers who have opened Yorkshire's first sunflower walk inspired by the Tour de France and their friend's cancer battle

Sunflowers make people smile and that’s just one of the drivers that led to a North Yorkshire farming couple plant 10 acres of them in June this year and the field has opened this week for visitors to enjoy the county’s first sunflower walk.

Farmers David and Rachael Sowray have planted 10 acres of sunflowers

It is all in aid of raising funds for cancer charities, and for farmer David Sowray of Humberton and his wife Rachael it is now an even more pertinent reminder of their close friend and former BBC sports and local radio presenter Dom Busby, who passed away earlier this year.

David, who farms arable crops at Helperby, near Easingwold, said he was inspired by another farming friend over in Liverpool who had grown sunflowers during the pandemic last year to raise funds for and thank the NHS.

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“I thought it was a great idea and I had some friends who were suffering from cancer who were finding it difficult to access the care they needed during the first lockdown. Some didn’t want to go in for hospital appointments for fear of catching Covid. The cancer charities were also struggling to raise funds with special events being cancelled and their charity shops were closed.

After the charity open days are over, the crop will be harvested for sunflower oil

“Rachael and I thought it would be nice to give it a try and see what we could do to help and make people smile by offering something a bit different. Something like you see when the TV cameras follow the Tour de France in the south of France and when they pan out to include the magnificent French countryside you see these fields of never-ending sunflowers."

David is used to growing wheat, barley, oilseed rape and spring beans on the 400 acres that he farms in partnership with his brother Jonathan, but said the new crop, which can be harvested for sunflower oil, has not been without its challenges.

“It is a challenge because we are normally considered to be too far north for the sunflowers to mature properly to produce a sunflower oil crop and they can’t cope with the frost we had in April and then May was a washout. I had expected us to drill them a little earlier but fortunately we went for an early maturing variety which we finally got sowed in June and we are absolutely delighted with the way they have turned out and we are already getting loads of people and lots of smiles.

“Sunflowers tilt their heads during the day to face the sun, just as we do when we are sunbathing and are actually native to Mexico and the Americas rather than France and Europe."

It is a crop that interests David for the future although it is his initial reason of providing funds for others and as somewhere to walk that remains foremost.

“I drilled them on our good clay loam land in such a way that they have enough space for the flower heads to look really good and they have bushed out massive. They are fabulous for pollinators and you can see as many as eight bees on each flower, it’s a fantastic sight. The bees are able to extract so much nectar you can see them sometimes struggle to take off.

“My original idea, before we had the poor weather early on was to combine them but we would need a lovely autumn now. We will harvest them if we can and perhaps that will provide us with seed for next year to try again. While we are normally considered too far north to grow the crop the same was said of maize and vines until the recent past so who knows?"

Rachael said that they have gone for it being a sunflower walk because they felt the appeal was more to those who just fancied a leisurely stroll with nature rather than anything competitive.

“We wanted it to be a walk rather than some kind of maze because we think it will appeal more to people who want to come and enjoy a relaxed walk among the wildlife and insect life habitation it also brings about. We have already seen a couple of coveys of English partridge within the crop.

“We also have a coffee and crepe van at the entrance and exit to the walk and you can bring well behaved dogs, one per person. You can also pick your own sunflower head to take home for £1 per head, bringing your own secateurs. The entry fee is £6 and 50 per cent of all proceeds goes to charity."

Sadly, Dom who had been destined to welcome visitors with his big smile and sunny personality is no longer around but David and Rachael are leading their own personal tribute to him by raising funds for the charities that cared for him.

David said that Dom’s intended involvement had come about during lockdown.

“We have another business called The Log Shed on the farm, supplying and delivering firewood, and Dom was working with us when I came up with the idea, as his work on BBC Radio 5 Live had been curtailed because of no sport being held. He was delivering logs for me and it was nice to have him around.

“I thought Dom would be the ideal man to be our front of house for welcoming people to the sunflower walk as he was well known from his time at BBC Radio York. He thought it was a great idea.

“Tragically, he contracted a brain tumour and passed away just five weeks later. He was a wonderful guy. I went to school with him, played cricket with him. He loved sport and people and was a very popular radio presenter. He was well loved by everybody and the BBC led some very moving tributes to him.

“Rachel and I spoke with his mum, Magda, about the specific charities she would like to see funds going towards and that’s how we decided on Macmillan Cancer Care and St Michael’s Hospice where Dom spent his final days."

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