Many would say that John Olson has a heart of gold.
That’s pretty close, as far as a color descriptor. Olson, a Big Lake, Minn., real estate agent, is into yellow — yellow sunflowers, specifically. And his heart? It’s full of community-building and compassion.
Paula MohrON A MISSION: John Olson, also known by his nickname Johnny Fish, has turned a mission into his passion: planting sunflower fields and opening them to the public for free. Some visit the fields to celebrate, some to enjoy being outside, some to enjoy the natural beauty. And some come seeking solitude or a place to grieve.
For the past five years, Olson has been planting small plots of sunflowers on donated land and then opening them up to visitors free of charge when the heads are in full bloom. Often, he adds interesting artifacts, such a piano, an old tractor, boat or pickup, for photographic interest. Another time, he provided an ice cream truck in a field. Olson simply requests that visitors respect the property, enjoy the sunflowers and landscape, take lots of photos and then share them with others.
“We need to spread some sunshine,” Olson says, acknowledging the challenges and contentiousness people have encountered over the past year.
Olson, also known as Johnny Fish — his real estate business is Fish Realty — views the sunflower fields as his gift to the community, allowing visitors to make memories with friends and family. Some fields have been specifically planted in memory of loved ones, a community experience, or in recognition or honor of civic duty and service. Whatever the reason, Olson is convinced the sunflowers offer the opportunity to experience hope as well as healing.
“In my heart, my vision is to eventually create a nonprofit to bless communities with beauty,” he says.
Paula MohrSUPPORTING COMMUNITY: John Olson believes that sunflowers help spread joy and offer hope to those who visit fields he has planted.
With the pandemic last year, Olson pushed to do as many fields as possible. He planted 12 fields and released 10 for public viewing (two sites were not opened). Thousands of visitors traveled to the communities of Rogers, Big Lake, Dayton, Monticello, Andover, Albert Lea, Princeton, Otsego and Orrock. In photos visitors shared on social media, one could join the marking of birthdays, weddings, anniversaries, graduations and memorials, and sense visitors’ joy, laughter, healing and grief.
Long planting season
As of early June, Olson has finished three fields. He figures he will be planting through July.
Olson works with interested landowners who have donated from 1 to 10 acres. He then invests his own labor, time and money in prepping and planting each field. He also maintains fields through the growing season. He informs his more than 33,200 Facebook followers when fields are in bloom — visit facebook.com/groups/fishsunflowers. After the sunflowers are finished, he leaves the heads for wildlife and then later knocks down the plants or seeds the plot to grass, depending on the landowner’s request.
Olson admits this year has been financially challenging. The costs of equipment maintenance, seed and fertilizer is catching up to him. He preps ground using a New Holland 2330, a 6-foot disk and a John Deere 7100 three-row planter. Even though he does not collect admission fees at the fields, hundreds of supporters have donated in person to Olson and online via a recently established GoFundMe account.
“It is really hard to ask for any help because we feel that it takes part of the gift away,” explains Sarah Olson, Johnny’s wife, on the fundraising site, bit.ly/gfmsunflowers.
Paula MohrVISITOR SIGN-IN: Olson asks visitors who come during planting to sign his John Deere 7100 three-row planter.
“However, this project has gotten so large that it is impossible to continue to support it personally.” Funds provided will be used for various site costs, such as insurance, fuel, seed, fertilizer, spray, equipment maintenance, props, signage, videography, seed packets and hired help.
The fields have done more than provide a destination for pandemic-weary visitors. From the get-go, Olson has encouraged photography, specifically welcoming professional photographers to do shoots on-site. There also has been opportunity for local business promotion via sunflower fields.
One photographer who has captured beautiful images and shared them on Facebook is Vasanth Rajkumar of Minneapolis. Rajkumar works full time as an IT consultant. Photography is his passion, he says, and he shoots on weekends and when time permits.
“I heard news about a sunflower field open to the public in Rogers in 2020, had a casual visit and took some landscape shots,” Rajkumar says. “Some of the photos ended up on the Fish Facebook page and became popular. I got few inquiries if I would do portrait shots, and ended up doing about 65 portrait sessions at the fields over summer.”
View Rajkumar’s photography on his website at lenzguy.com.
When asked why and how he got into planting fields of sunflowers, Olson says he wants to give back to his community and to honor his farming grandfathers, for whom he is named.
Paula MohrSPECIAL MEMORIES: Visitors have made photo albums for John Olson in thanks for sharing the beauty of sunflowers.
“They always were talking about farming, country and family,” he says. “We need to stop and listen to those folks.”
His first field came about almost by chance. He bought a 6-acre, run-down homestead that no one wanted, cleaned up the site and planted sunflowers around it. People noticed and stopped to see what he was doing there throughout the growing season.
That’s when he started hearing their personal stories, along with their thank-yous for beautifying and honoring the legacy of a once-proud farmer.
A few years after that, Olson sold the farm and bought equipment so he could plant more sunflower fields. His mission had come full circle: Sow sunflowers, sow joy and sow compassion.
“I’ve always loved the color yellow,” he adds. “I am legally color-blind. Folks that are color-blind like me can actually see yellow.”