Sunflower fields of hope

Published 10:41 pm Tuesday, September 15, 2020

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Area effort dedicated to children who have died and their families


Spreading sunshine.

That’s the goal of Minnesotan Johnny Olson’s sunflower fields that started in the metro part of the state and are spreading to rural Albert Lea this week.

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Olson, who is also known as Johnny Fish, said the sunflower movement actually began six years ago, when he started putting sunflowers on his real estate signs for his company Fish Realty.

“It’s a flower I felt meant a lot to a lot of people,” he said. “It caught people’s eyes. Yellow has always been my thing, and it felt right and positive.”

Then, he decided to buy a farm from an elderly man and his wife who were going to move into an assisted living center. He had grown up next to the farm for years in the Monticello area.

The man had a green thumb for growing flowers, and as a way to thank the man and to be a good steward, Olson decided to grow some flowers on the property.

He cleared the land of old trees, fences and other structures and planted sunflowers.

One day after the flowers were grown and blooming, someone stopped and took pictures, and the effort took off from there.

“It started with growing flowers for this man,” he said. “The new year I was growing flowers for the community, and then it turned into growing flowers for the new owners.”

He expanded from one to two fields, and he is now in his fifth year. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, he thought he would have more time to plant more fields.

“I thought what a good opportunity to jump on the tractor and think about people who have been inspirational to my life,” he said. “The more I sat on the tractor, the more I realized there weren’t enough fields.”

He has a dozen fields this year — though a few were lost to weather or deer — each dedicated to a group of people such as caregivers, grandparents or people who are sick or hurting.

There have been fields in Andover, Big Lake, Dayton, Monticello, Orrock, Otsego, Rogers, Zimmerman — and now rural Albert Lea.

“It’s been a way to have people reflect and care for one another — to show support but also to hear individuals’ stories,” Olson said, noting his favorite part of the whole process has been connecting with people who come and hearing their stories.

‘A bit of a smile’

The fields are all donated for the cause, and he clears the lands, prepares them for planting, plants the seeds and then harvests them to make them look like new again.

The land for the field in rural Albert Lea is near Manchester and was donated by his cousin, Jared Dawson, a Southwest Middle School teacher.

Dawson said Olson approached him about planting a field outside the metro area, and they decided to go for it on his land and see what would happen. He said his property is about 20 acres, and they have the equivalent of about two acres of sunflowers that are split up into smaller fields.

He said it didn’t take long to figure out what the purpose for the Albert Lea field would be as he thought about the children who have died in recent weeks and years in the community. They decided to have the field honor these children and their families.

Having never experienced the loss of the child, Dawson said he could never try to empathize with these families, but the best he can do is sympathize.

After the initial outpouring of grief and sadness following their children’s deaths, these families have gone back to trying to live a new normal, he said. But then come events like their child’s birthday or Christmas and having one less person at the table for holidays.

“It’s a huge emptiness, so if there’s something we can do to provide a bit of a smile, that was kind of the purpose of the whole thing,” he said.

The field, at 72056 255th St. north of Albert Lea, opened for families who have lost a child on Tuesday and opens for the general public Wednesday. The fields are open from sunrise to sunset.

Olson said the blooms generally last between seven to 10 days on average — sometimes longer and sometimes shorter.

He hoped the blooms would last through this weekend and next.

People are invited to take photos and utilize the props that are in the fields if desired. There is an old piano in one of the fields and in another there is an old tractor. Some of the props at the other fields have included a small plane and an old car.

Dawson said people are also welcome to use outsides of buildings for backdrops,  but he asked that people stay off of the playground equipment and outbuildings.

‘A way to pay it forward’

As another season of sunflowers winds down, Olson said he never imagined the sunflower movement to grow the way it has.

Fish Sunflowers has gotten over a half a million posts on its Facebook page and is approaching half a million views on its website.

He is working with a seed company to provide enough sunflower seeds for one acre of seed for every city in the state, whether that seed is distributed amongst individuals and planted in their own yards or planted in one location.

He would also like to still have at least a dozen fields throughout Minnesota next year that are maybe a bit larger and have a Fish Sunflower tour.

“The best way to really learn is by jumping in with both feet,” Olson said.

He hopes to keep the effort free for people to attend and does not accept monetary donations.

“It’s a way to pay it forward to one another and give people the ability to share their story,” Olson said.