“This is a good thing.” It’s a mantra Duane Button repeats often.
When asked to explain what he has accomplished on his little family farm — when words fail him — he says this. And really, what else is there to say?
Duane Button readies for his day when the sun is just rising on Buttonwood Farm, its rays reflecting off tens of thousands of sunflowers, bathing the rolling farmland in a golden light. He has to harvest today’s crop by hand, and the way demand has been, he’ll be lucky to keep up.
The sunflowers started as a marketing gimmick in the summer of 2003. To lure people to his ice cream stand in the rural town of Griswold, Connecticut, Duane planted an acre of them in the field opposite. People admired the beauty, but aside from traffic, he got nothing from the crop except cattle feed. Land is precious on small farms, so he kept his eyes open for opportunities.
A few months later, Duane received an epiphany in the most unlikely form: junk mail. It was a mass mailing from Make-A-Wish, the type most people just throw away. But this day Duane and his wife, Kim, took note of the foundation’s mission: to grant one wish — one perfect day — to children with life-threatening illnesses. They thought of sunflowers.
The next summer Duane planted a larger field, and Kim sold bouquets out of their gazebo for $5 donations, dubbing the event “Sunflowers for Wishes.” The event lasted only nine days, but they raised $30,000. From there, things snowballed. Five years into the charity, Duane is now planting 17 acres of the golden flowers. He and Kim have started selling sunflower-themed T-shirts and post-cards, and they’ve even added a hayride. In 2007 alone, the festival raised almost $70,000 — enough for at least eight children to find their perfect day.
At 6 a.m., Duane finds a few dozen sleepy but smiling volunteers waiting to join him in the fields. Although he never asks, they’re there every morning. Sunflowers for Wishes is a mark of pride for the community. Buttonwood is one of the last surviving family farms in the area. For a business like theirs to be able to set aside profit for a few days to do right for those in need, it’s like turning back the clock.
As Duane leads his volunteers out into the fields, Kim is readying the ice cream stand and the gazebo. She makes sure the sunflowers coming back from the fields are stored and ready at hand. Around 10 a.m., the first visitors arrive. By noon, the parking lot is full, and cars line the road for a mile. People stroll along the fields, enjoying the scene the Buttons have spent so long crafting: an old stone wall and a clear blue sky framing a sea of golden heads rocking gently in the breeze. When they buy their bouquets, many thank Kim for the charity, for the beauty, or for what they’ve done for the town.
Kim is gracious, but she and Duane aren’t the type to embrace the spotlight. Local celebrity chafes them worse than the sunflowers’ bristly hairs. That’s one reason why Duane doesn’t mind being in the field all day — far from the crowds, at peace in his work. Still, the gratitude that truly matters always seems to find him.
Late in the day, a woman calls out to him from the roadside. Her children are playing in the grass beside her. She tells him that one is terminally ill and a Make-A-Wish recipient. For a moment, she and Duane stand opposite each other, a thin stone wall separating two strangers, each of whom is a hero to the other. She breaks the silence: “Mr. Button, there’s a special place in heaven for you.”
Recalling the experience later, Duane becomes flustered. For someone like her — “someone with real problems,” as Duane would put it — to say such a thing of him, a man blessed with three healthy children, a farmer who fell face-first into philanthropy, it’s just too much for him to accept.
“It’s nothing to do with me,” he says. “I mean, we plant the flowers and it looks nice. But it means so much to some people, you know? For something to mean that much to her, boy that’s …” His voice trails off, and he composes himself. Then, earnestly: “That’s good, I think.”
The sun sets on the last day of the festival faster than anyone would like. In a few short weeks the radiant blooms opened, filled the rolling Connecticut fields with light and joy, and then passed. Duane readies his equipment to recycle the stalks into feed and bedding for his herd — he doesn’t waste anything he can use. Some late visitors complain to him that the sunflowers didn’t last longer, that a nine-day peak just isn’t enough. He shrugs. For all his skill as a farmer, Duane has no control over that. They are what they are.
Miracles brief, but beautiful.