By CYNTHIA VINARSKY
VINDICATOR BUSINESS WRITER
BELOIT -- When Roger Martig looks at the wide bright-yellow blossom of a sunflower, he sees more than just a pretty face.
Sunflowers, always a favorite of gardeners and home decorators, have given Martig's dairy farm in Beloit a niche in the nation's burgeoning birdseed business.
Martig Farms grows 400 acres of sunflowers for their seeds, a nutrition-rich base for several varieties of wild birdseed it markets under the brand name Birds Luv 'Em.
But that's only the beginning. The farm grows only 2 percent of the seed it uses to produce 30 tons of birdseeds a day, mixing and bagging seed for other companies in a business that's grown every year since the family decided to try it 20 years ago.
Bird-watching and bird feeding are the fastest-growing hobbies in the United States, according to the Wild Bird Feeding Industry Web site. And Martig believes it.
He said the farm has expanded its storage facilities several times and is constantly updating its equipment and processes to accommodate the growing demand for seed. In winter the seed packaging room sometimes operates around the clock.
The Birds Luv 'Em brand is distributed in retail outlets across Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. Other seed brands the farm mixes and bags to meet its customers' specifications are shipped all over the country.
Besides plain sunflower seeds, the farm packs up mixtures to attract or meet the needs of a multitude of different birds and wild animals.
Cracked corn, for example, is a popular variety for feeding ducks and deer. Pigeon food, especially the high-nutrition formula designed for racing pigeons, has grown in popularity just by word-of-mouth advertising, and now 20 to 30 tons a month are sold.
At its present rate Martig Farms packages as much as 15.6 million pounds of birdseed a year, mostly in 50-pound bags for the serious bird lover. Workers also make up smaller bags in 25-, 20-, 10- and 5-pound sizes.
Martig, 68, said dairy farming has always been the primary business of the family spread, which was owned by his grandfather and his father before he and his brother Jesse bought it about a half-century ago.
The farm has 1,000 head of cattle and milks 500 cows twice a day, a process that takes several hours every morning and evening. With nearly 4,000 acres, the family farm also raises corn and other crops.
"The cows come first," he said. "They're our bread and butter."
Jesse Martig is no longer involved in the business, but Roger and his wife, Alice, have raised an enthusiastic business team. The couple's four sons -- Earl, Samuel, Marvin and John, as well as grandsons Roger C. and Kevin -- have joined him full-time in the family enterprise.
"We're so proud of our kids and our grandkids, it's unbelievable," he said, smiling broadly as he stood surrounded by a field of sunflowers. "How many men can say that four of their sons have joined the family business? Not many, that's for sure."
His daughter, Rhonda, is not in the business, and 13 other grandchildren not yet involved full-time, though some work part-time on the farm.
Martig shakes his head in mock disgust when he remembers the salesman who first persuaded the family to try growing sunflowers.
The peddler claimed that construction of a sunflower oil extraction plant was in the works for western Ohio, but the factory never materialized. "It was a wet year, we couldn't get the corn planted, and I think that salesman sold us a line," Martig said with a wry grin.
At first the Martigs had trouble selling the small black oilseeds from their sunflower crops -- people were more accustomed to using the striped, nonoilseed variety for bird feed. Eventually the nutritional advantages of oilseeds became known, and the Birds Luv 'Em brand took off.
Sunflowers are popular crops in north central states such as North and South Dakota, Minnesota, Kansas, Colorado and Nebraska, but they flourish in Ohio too, because they have a short growing season. Martig said crops can be planted as late as the fourth of July for an October harvest.
Growing on thick green stalks 3 feet tall and higher, the flowers follow the sun as it progresses across the sky when they're in their budding stages, he said. Once they reach full bloom, the flowers face east, finally drooping so their blossoms face the ground.
The seeds dry out in that drooped position, shielded from the wind and rain, and can be easily harvested by machine in early October.
After that, the seeds go through a machine drying process and are cleaned to remove dust and debris before packaging.
"Our feed is high quality, and it's clean. No dust," Martig said. "We reclean everything before we bag it, and that's why it sells."