BUCHANAN, Va. – As Candace Monaghan prepared to run her first sunflower festival in 2016, one thought ran through her head: ‘Who’s gonna pay to see a sunflower?’
While she continued setting up for the event, butterflies filled her stomach and anxiety washed over her. Then, her phone buzzed in her pocket. Her brother was calling.
“You’re never gonna believe this,” he said, disbelief in his voice.”There are cars lined up all the way to Route 11 to get in here.”
That day, Monaghan and her family were hoping for at least 300 people to come to see the Beaver Dam Farm Sunflower Festival; however, much to their surprise, nearly 1,600 people attended.
“At the end of the day—I’m getting kind of teary-eyed now—my aunt came over to me and she gave me a huge hug and she was like, ‘We did it,’” said Monaghan, reflecting on the emotional moment.
Since then, the event has rooted itself in the hearts of the Botetourt County community, blossoming into a tradition adored by tens of thousands from around the country. Just in 2019 alone, the festival attracted nearly 20,000 people from more than 22 states, and in 2020, about 15,000 people ventured out to see the event.
“Just to see the growth of it, sometimes I have to pinch myself,” said Monaghan. “It’s kind of like living a dream. Like, how is this happening right here in our small little community?”
The idea for the festival budded in 2015 when the Wicklines, Monaghan’s family, planted their first batch of sunflowers. After seeing how much people enjoyed them, Monaghan thought the festival would be a good way to diversify their farm’s income.
“At first, my dad didn’t like the idea at all,” Monaghan said, laughing. “He’s shy and wasn’t thrilled about the idea of people being on his land. But after it went so well the first year, we kind of have just grown on it from there.”
The generational farm that the festival happens on has been a part of the Wickline family since the 1900s.
It was purchased as a dairy farm in 1927, and in September 2019, the farm was sold out of the dairy industry and transitioned into one that runs beef cattle.
Since Monaghan was a child, her mom, dad, siblings and grandmother have all lived on the farm property, which totals more than 100 acres.
As her own family grows with the farm, Monaghan is excited to see other families grow with it, too. This year, there’s going to be a new 8-foot tall stem flower with markings on the stem of it so that kids can measure how tall they are.
On its base, it’ll say ‘grow with us.’
“I’m hoping that that’s gonna turn into a yearly thing at the sunflower festival where people can say, ‘My two-year-old was this tall, but this is how tall they are this year.’”
This year, Monaghan expects to break a record and have more than 20,000 people come to the festival, which will have more than 620,000 sunflowers.
Jennifer Wilson, who has been attending the festival since it started, is proud to see how much it has evolved over the years.
During the first three years, while serving as the fundraising arm and then-president of the Buchanan Elementary PTA, Wilson set up a stand at the event and sold popcorn, raising nearly $1,000.
“What could be more fulfilling and happy inducing than being in a field of smiling sunflowers? You can’t help but be happy when you’re surrounded by all of that beauty,” she said.
But the event is about more than just the scenery, it’s also about the community. Each year features more than 90 handmade craft and food vendors along with photo booths, live music, hay wagon rides and several other activities.
Additionally, the family also gives out four scholarships to two high school graduates who plan to study agriculture in college and then to two Botetourt County nonprofits.
Having grown up in Botetourt County, Monaghan said she’s proud to call it her home.
“Botetourt is home. I mean there are so many other places around the world that we would like to see, but this would always be where we come back to,” she said.
The festival kicks off on Sept. 10 and will go through the 19th. For more information, click here.