Field of dreams: People come from far and near to enjoy moment with Shupings’ sunflowers:
ROCKWELL — Not long after Heather Carter and her children got out of the car, Rusty Shuping shouted a hello.
“Thanks for coming out and enjoying the sunflowers,” Rusty said.
“Thanks for having it,” Heather shouted back.
Lela and Eli Carter then took off running toward the acre of sunflowers Rusty and Laurie Shuping have growing toward the back of their property off N.C. 152 — 5455 N.C. 152 E Rockwell.
The Carter family are among the many people — most of them strangers to the Shupings — who follow the big red arrow and sign that says “Sunflowers” at their driveway entrance.
The visitors park their cars on the nearby grass, grab a camera or their cellphone, and start walking carefully among the hundreds of sunflowers, which Rusty says feature about 10 varieties.
Some people have even brought a picnic. Engagement photos or bridal portraits have been shot here. Folks bring their dogs.
A local television crew recently reported from the Shupings’ sunflower field, and someone told the Shupings the sunflowers have made them celebrities.
“I’m just married to Santa; that’s the only claim to celebrity I have,” Laurie said, and yes, the handsomely bearded Rusty often takes on the role of Santa Claus at Christmas.
The Shupings opened their sunflower acre this past Sunday, and they welcome folks dawn to dusk. Often, they’re not even in the field as people roam around.
The couple have designated Monday as the day visitors can start coming in to pick or cut the sunflowers they want for home bouquets.
Until then, it’s pictures only. Everything’s free, by the way.
If you have it in your heart, the Shupings say, you can leave a donation for One Heart Global Ministries, which has been making a considerable impact in Ecuador since 2010.
Along the driveway, they have placed a donation box on a small step ladder.
Laurie Shuping makes at least one weeklong, Christian-based mission trip to Ecuador each year, and this November will be her ninth.
One Heart Global Ministries builds churches, operates a seminary for future pastors, develops greenhouses to help indigenous populations with sustainability, and provides things such as medical and dental care, a soup kitchen, Bibles, shoes and socks, eyeglasses, leadership training and family education.
Laurie believes strongly in the notion that all Christians have something to give.
“The Lord just led us to have sunflowers,” she said.
It all started back in 2017 when Rusty was looking for ground cover in the couple’s huge backyard so he wouldn’t have to mow so much. They planted about a half-acre of sunflowers.
Thinking it would be a shame for their sunflowers to die in the field without being shared, the couple decided to invite people in to take pictures and take home sunflowers. Folks came from as far away as Virginia and South Carolina.
It was then they also hit on the idea of putting out a donation box for One Heart.
“It just flabbergasted us, the response,” Laurie said. “It was unbelievable.”
They estimate that about 2,000 people came to their sunflower field that first year, and the visitors donated $3,000. Laurie always pays her own way for the mission trip to Ecuador, so the donations filled a lot of needs.
“People were just very respectful, and we did amazing things with the money,” Laurie said. “I was just overwhelmed with what God did that year.”
Rusty and Laurie also concluded that people who take the time to appreciate sunflowers are generally happy, considerate people. In this, their third year of sharing their sunflowers, they’ve had to pick up only one piece of trash left behind by the visitors.
“We met the nicest people,” Laurie said, looking back to 2017. “It was just a wonderful experience.”
Rusty acknowledges he started learning a lot more about sunflowers after that first year.
“That got me hooked, and I’d rather have something pretty to look at,” he said. “I guess it’s in my blood now.”
Last year, a spring drought took its toll on the Shupings’ crop, but the sunflowers still raised $900 for the Ecuadoran mission work.
Rusty decided to double the size of the field this year, and it has paid off with some beautiful photo opportunities.
As he wandered into the field, young Eli Carter couldn’t believe all the bees. Lela Carter wondered aloud why all the sunflowers were facing east away from the afternoon sun in the west.
Nearby, friends Corina Caskey, Kayla Fesperman, Kayla Christy and Maggie Utley had come to this respite of sunflowers in two cars. They had heard about it through Facebook; Rusty acknowledged he keeps his personal page updated with news and photos about his sunflowers.
Christy said they were there to practice their photo-taking skills. Utley said they were just having fun, too.
Rusty Shuping is retired from Piedmont Natural Gas. Laurie Shuping has been in the travel business for 39 years, and she has headed Shuping Travel Service out of their home for more than 15 years.
She still arranges tours and cruises for customers, but she also has found a niche by specializing in Christian mission trips to all parts of the world. Rusty has been to Africa on mission work, but Ecuador is Laurie’s personal focus, and she thinks the world of One Heart Global Ministries founder Katty Aquirre.
Laurie says the mission work aims at enriching, not changing, the culture of the Quechua people.
The group’s mission statement says, in part, “Our mission is to reflect God’s heart of love and compassion for people by teaching the word of God, making disciples of Christ and meeting the natural needs of people.”
Rusty loves the mornings in their field before the day’s summer heat really settles in. Thanks to the sunflowers, it’s filled with bumblebees, honey bees, butterflies and yellow finches.
Mockingbirds punctuate the air with songs all the time, he noted.
For the Shupings, sunflowers have been a miraculous gift, one to be shared.
“It’s my favorite flower,” little Lela Carter said.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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