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Sunflower Festival offers fall fun despite an early bloom

What is a sunflower festival without any sunflowers? Apparently, still a good deal of fall fun.

September's heat and heavy rain forced the sunflowers at Gorman Heritage Farm to bloom three weeks earlier than anticipated. By October, their leaves had withered, and heads had drooped.

Nevertheless, the Sunflower Festival continued as planned during the weekend of Oct. 6, complete with food trucks, folk music and farm animals.

Established in 1835 by Scottish immigrant Edward Brown, the farm is located in Evendale, roughly a 40 minute drive from Oxford. Now, under the management of the Gorman Heritage Farm Foundation, the property houses gardens, hiking trails and year-round educational programs on farming practices and healthy land use.

Stationed near the farm's entrance, the festival's food trucks offered everything from pizza and franks to Thai food and fruit smoothies. Those looking for more food options could opt instead for the tent-village of vendors, where gourmet granola was sold directly across from miniature doughnuts.

New this year to the festival was the MadTree Beer Garden, allowing visitors to sample and enjoy drinks from the Cincinnati brewery.

Food wasn't all the festival had to offer. Other vendors sold paintings, homemade hats, or tea towels and ceramic bowls emblazoned with bees, bats, dragonflies and foxes.

"She likes to include local species in her art," said Mark Hamerstadt of his girlfriend and local artist Linnea Campbell. "They're what you might see on the side of the road."

Under a nearby shelter, visitors could stop and listen to a variety of artists, including Katie Pritchard, Ceol Mohr and the Pine Ridge Partners, the latter of whom serenaded the crowd with familiar songs like "Skip to My Lou."

The festival's younger crowd was more interested in hayrides. Kids lined up in the shade with their chaperones, eager to temporarily trade their strollers for a ride on the straw-filled wagon.

While some children sat patiently to get their face painted, others arrived already dressed as a purple bat or a princess with a tiara, perhaps piloting costumes for Halloween.

At the top of a hill was a barnyard petting zoo, although children also stopped along the way to wave arms through fences in the hopes of feeling the wool of a curious sheep or goat.

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When a little girl ambled past a wandering chicken to pet a miniature horse, one volunteer was happy to introduce her to Shorty.

"He smells your sunscreen," the volunteer said as the girl reached over noisy nostrils for Shorty's blond mane.

Another popular animal was Eddie, a 170-pound zebu with gray fur, tiny horns and a hump that left onlookers wondering what in the world they were petting.

"I've heard horse and goat," said Tiffany Johnson, Eddie's human companion. "Camel was my favorite, but he is a miniature cow."

Johnson asked the group not to crowd Eddie when they pet him, as he was still learning how to stay calm around people. Johnson then explained that she needed to hold Eddie's head at all times, meaning that she'd also have to appear in any pictures taken with the zebu.

Behind the barnyard was a waist-high maze of wilted sunflowers. At its center stood a tent adorned with flower heads that hung like mobiles around its edge. Here, visitors could borrow shears to cut droopy flowers of their choosing at three for a dollar.

One of the tent's volunteers explained how wet weather conditions had affected the flowers' bloom, but that the heads could still be used for birdseed. Over and over, he recounted how a healthy, yellow flower -- a diamond in the field -- had been found the day before. Sunday morning's crowd, however, was not as lucky.

Still, yellow sunflower petals made fleeting appearances around the farm grounds, found in vendors' designs and braided into some of the horses' hair.

Sassy and Star, two miniature horses with flowers in their manes and tails, proved true to their names. All eyes were on their yellow accents when the horses and their handlers paced the yard, allowing children and parents alike to admire their beautiful braids.