Sunflower maze attracts and amazes

| 16 Aug 2016 | 01:31

By Meghan Byers
– The sweltering heat didn't stop visitors from attending the sixth annual opening of the Sussex County Sunflower Maze in Sandyston this weekend – the first sunflower maze in New Jersey, and the largest on the east coast. Two couples even got engaged in its golden fields on opening day.
Owner Raj Sinha said that they typically see seven to ten engagements each year, along with weddings, maternity photos, and birthday parties. "I am honored that people have chosen us to share these special life events with," he said. "I am honored to become a part of their family tradition."
Family is at the heart of Liberty Farm, where the maze has been planted for the last two years, relocated from its first home in Augusta. Sinha and family greet visitors warmly as they enter, offering water, food, and information. Sinha's brother-in-law, Jody Plitt, painted all of the signs, in addition to illustrating a newly released children's book authored by Sinha, called "Sunny & the Sunflower Maze." Based on a true story, the book tells the tale of a kitten who was found in the maze and adopted by one of the many photographers who visit each season.
"We have amateur photographers, and we've had photographers from the Smithsonian," Sinha said. "We've had people come just to shoot one variety of insect."
Sinha, who purchased the circa 1790 farm with his wife Jolene eleven years ago, also grows a variety of fruits and vegetables, which they sell to local restaurants such as the Mohawk House in Sparta. But it's the sunflowers that bring thousands of people each year from all over the east coast.
"A lot of people who have never been to a farm are drawn by the sunflowers," Sinha said. "Once they're here, they want to learn more." Liberty Farm aims to provide visitors with plenty of opportunities to do just that. Sinha plans to place educational signs throughout the maze, which is about a three-mile walk, explaining concepts such as heliotropism (the tendency of sunflowers to move with the sun) and the migration of monarch butterflies, hundreds of which passed through the farm last year.
Butterflies, honeybees, and wild birds all thrive on Liberty Farm, which first began growing sunflowers as part of a conservation project created by the New Jersey Audubon Society. "They were looking for a North Jersey grower and I said let's try it," Sinha said.
What started as an experiment soon became a passion. "I'm thinking about sunflowers and agritourism every day, 365 days a year," said Sinha, and his dedication shows. There are plans for painting and yoga classes, opportunities for visitors to pick their own flowers, and plenty of interactive signs and cut-outs along the maze's path. One sign informs visitors that an amphitheatre is soon to be built, where Sinha says he hopes to host events such as children's plays, story hours, and "maybe even live music."
This year they've also planted a field of Russian mammoth sunflowers, which Sinha says can grow to be eleven feet tall. "Some people like that challenge, that feeling of being lost," Sinha explained. "We have something for everyone."
Providing such an experience is not without its difficulties. Deer, bears, and poor weather conditions can all cause devastation to the fields. But to Sinha, it's well worth the effort.
"The greatest reward is seeing the kids' smiling faces," he said. "Seeing them from year to year as they grow, listening to how they remember their last visit and point out what's new or different. It's all about family and the memories we create...We love Sussex County. We love bringing thousands of people to experience Sussex County for the first time."
The Sussex County Sunflower Maze opened on August 13 and will remain open seven days a week, 9 AM to 6 PM, up until the first frost (usually in mid- to late September). Admission for adults is $10, $6 for children ages 4-12, and free for children ages 3 and under. Liberty Farm is located on County Road 645, just off Route 206, in Sandyston.