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Published August 06, 2010, 12:00 AM

Just call him ‘onion man’

Underwood gardener has love for plants
UNDERWOOD, Minn. – Ellard Johnson is known as the onion man. It’s a rightful reputation for the 80-year-old man who once grew 17,000 candy onions in his garden.

By: Kelly Smith, INFORUM

UNDERWOOD, Minn. – Ellard Johnson is known as the onion man.

It’s a rightful reputation for the 80-year-old man who once grew 17,000 candy onions in his garden.

“That’s how they know me – by my onions,” he said of the community 20 minutes east of Fergus Falls. “I wanted to prove I could raise something people wanted.”

And he did.

For the past 17 years, Johnson has traded his 53-year dairy farming career for gardening.

And not just one garden – several. He has a couple acres of sunflowers, hundreds of tomatoes and cabbage plants, potatoes, pumpkins, beets – and, of course, thousands of candy onions.

All of it is planted, picked and peeled by hand; usually by the farmer, who also trucks his produce to local markets.

“Everybody who knows Ellard knows his garden,” neighbor and fellow farmer Sam Krog said. “If you go to the house and he’s not there, you go to the garden.”

Johnson was barely a teenager when he started gardening. He quit school after eighth grade, farmed soybeans, milked cows and raised four kids with his wife of 56 years, LaVonne.

As he cut back on farming soybeans, he turned to gardening to escape boredom. About a decade ago, he started growing onions due to a high demand for the pungent plants, adding up to 17,000 grapefruit-sized onions.

He’d get up at 2 a.m. to pick and peel the onions before selling them.

Now, though, he’s “getting tired” and has scaled back his onion garden to up to 4,000 onions.

Getting up around 5 a.m., Johnson spends 11 hours in his garden, fighting dandelions or deer and tending to the plants. He also maintains 106 acres of soybeans.

Neighbors get produce for free, and he donates sunflowers, marigolds and other flowers to his church on Sundays.

Even at 80, he maintains his humor and health.

“I supposed you aren’t supposed to have a job at 80 years old,” he said, adding about relaxing in his pseudo-retirement: “That’s not for me.”

With dirt wedged between his fingernails, Johnson said he gives 110 percent to maintain quality over quantity with his produce.

“You’re either in it, or you’re not,” he said.

When he isn’t working, he fishes, plays pinochle or spends time with his four kids and

10 grandchildren.

But his gardens – they’re a true labor of love he isn’t willing to ever completely give up. He concedes that when he turns 83, he’ll have a small garden.

Just maybe.

“When it starts to get to be hard work, I’ll quit,” he said. “It just seems like I have to do it. … I want to do it.”

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