At the start of the growing season, Mike Strambi came up with a plan.
It was an idea really, and he bounced it off his sister Vicky Herkel. She gave her blessing — or something like that.
Strambi wanted to try something different. He’d tried a corn maze about the year they opened the Historic Centerville Fruit Station back in 2010. But while it proved a hit with customers, the corn maze was a bear to manage. This time, Strambi decided to switch corn for sunflowers.
Yes, sunflowers. Make that 9,000 seeds and 24 varieties. And some have grown taller than 20 feet. And they are apparently much easier to tend than corn.
“Today, I counted 43 cars,” said Michelle Korman, who manages the fruit stand. It sits about 100 feet away at the intersection of Kings Canyon Road (Highway 180) and South Oliver Avenue.
Korman said interested parties started lining up early that morning. She mentioned it opens at 9 a.m. That might have been a hint.
After she said that, maybe 5:15 p.m. June 29, another 20 or so cars showed up. And people delighted in traveling through the maze. Several Fresno TV stations did small segments on the maze, and that may have contributed to the popularity.
It’s less maze and more a twisty trail. But the flowers are magnificent and the greenery surrounds each visitor during the walk-through. Flowers abound. And they don’t face the moving sun. They turn to the east.
“Never in a million years would I have thought it would be this popular,” Strambi said. He had just returned from his regular job. “This was nothing but a weed patch.”
But it has a haunted past. More on that later.
Strambi said he tilled the soil, plotted out the layout and installed drip lines. The rest took care of itself. Sort of.
Herkel said her brother is a master farmer. “He can grow anything,” she said. She took my call even though she was vacationing on the Central Coast. “He’s got a green thumb.”
It’s not actually green. I checked.
But he sure can grow stuff. He started young. At 3, he started growing tomatoes. He’s allergic to the plants, it turned out.
Herkel said people “from all over” stop by the stand. A big fan is Nathan Magsig, but he’s a Fresno County supervisor from Clovis. Others come from more distant lands like countries in Europe and Asia. And she said a bunch of people from the Midwest arrive toward fall.
“Very impressive,” said Josh Washburn, who traveled from Fresno with wife, Becky, and their children. “We saw it on the news. Had to bring the kids.”
One of those kids, Kiya, 12, was impressed. “Very big and beautiful,” she said of the flowers.
Strambi said the sunflowers will last maybe another week or so. He said he plans to reseed the area and bring the sunflowers back again next year.
This is Strambi’s side job. He works as director of farming for Sun World International LLC, in Bakersfield, and oversees about 6,000 acres of table grapes. He talked a little about what he does and explained the complexity of the grape growth cycle and just how big the operation is.
Herkel said he put something like 140,000 miles on his truck last year traveling around the Valley.
“I’m a very good delegator,” Strambi said.
And about that haunted former patch of weeds. Strambi said an old fellow told him that when that old fellow was young, an old man burned to death in one of the small cabins that used to dot that field.
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