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Awesome to the core at Johnson’s Orchard

Lead Summary

A sign at the end of Gary and Judy Johnson’s driveway perhaps captures it best. The sign reads: “Applelovers Lane.”
If you love apples, the Johnson Apple Orchard in rural Steele County is the place to be.
For almost 30 years the Johnsons have been delighting area residents with fresh apples at their orchard in Lemond Township. They are back at it once again this fall as they are open Sunday afternoons. The orchard is a hidden gem tucked away in the lovely countryside between Owatonna and Ellendale.
Gary says some of the apple varieties are smaller in size this year, which he finds somewhat puzzling given the ideal growing conditions this season. But, he stresses, what they lack in size, they more than make up for in taste.
It’s almost comical what the Johnsons planned to do with the orchard. In the late 1980s, Gary planted his first apple trees and opened the orchard a few years later in the early 90s. “I thought this would be a good thing to get into when I retire,” Gary said, noting the main driving force to start came because there were no other orchards in the county. And, now almost three decades later, the same is true. Johnson’s orchard remains the only apple haven in Steele County.
The funny part is Gary, who is approaching 81, hasn’t really ever retired. He’s still snipping hair at the barber shop he sold a year ago in Owatonna, though he has cut back to about a day and a half a week. He’s been clipping away for 62 years, including 58 years at the same downtown shop.
The Johnson orchard swelled to around 900 trees a few years back, but they have scaled it back to about 500 now. “We’re just trying to cut down,” Gary says. “Too much for old people.”
Every Sunday, Gary said, has been busy with people coming out wearing their masks and buying apples. Many sit around and enjoy apple sundaes topped with caramel, whipped cream, nuts and a cherry. “We enjoy Sunday afternoons visiting with people,” said Gary. “It’s really good for socializing. People come for the apple sundaes if nothing else.”
The Johnsons sell 11 different kinds of apples. “We have many bushels,” he said. “We pick them when they are ripe. That’s why they are so tasty.”
Gary’s favorite is Fireside. “It’s sweet and crunchy,” he said. But, he quickly added, it’s pretty hard to beat a Honeycrisp apple.
One thing is for sure the Johnsons do not plan to add any new varieties. “We’re trying to cut down,” he said. “This is a lot of work.”
Despite the intensity of maintaining an orchard, the Johnsons love the end result. “It’s rewarding to finally see your product come to maturity. Reap the harvest,” Gary said.
As the Johnsons push into their 80s, they aren’t sure how long this tradition will continue. “Each year we say it’s our last, but we go another year,” Gary said. “Maybe we can get some help.”
For now, the Johnsons will be open every Sunday afternoon until mid November or until the apples run out. But Gary assured me that’s unlikely to happen with the amount of apples they have.
Apple lovers can go in hot pursuit of finding apples awesome to the core at the Johnson orchard.

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