From Underground Seed Company to Six All-America Selections
by Jean English
Copyright ©2006 by the author.
LouAnna Perkins, Janika Eckert, Rob Johnston. Photo courtesy of Maine Farmland Trust.
Following the progress of Rob Johnston’s life is like watching a seed as it germinates and responds to the sun. Johnston, founder of Johnny’s Selected Seeds in Albion, Maine, embodied a deep appreciation for seeds that grew as he progressed from uninspired college student to thriving business owner. Along the way, he was open to and received fertile input from key friends.
Rob Johnston, Jr., was born near Philadelphia and moved to Acton, Massachusetts--close to Johnny Appleseed’s home turf--at age nine. He went on to major in math at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, but, he admits, "I wasn’t nearly focused enough or revved enough to be a math major, so I basically was a poor student at UMass. In my sophomore year, I really started to skip classes."
An introduction to the Tao in a class about religion prompted him to skip even more. "The first thing the professor had us read was the Tao Te Ching. After I read that, I stopped going to that class. It had such an effect on me that I didn’t want to study anything else. I just wanted to let it sit and age."
A Growing Appetite for the Food Business
Around the same time, dorm mate Don Lorenson dug out a book on macrobiotics that a junior high school teacher had given him. "He just picked it up many years later, and it made a lot of sense to him...and to me," Johnston recalls. "Even though we both had meal tickets at the dining commons, we started cooking our own food in our rooms. We got really interested in natural foods and where food comes from. It was a progression from there."
This interest in food prompted Johnston, Lorenson and others to start the Yellow Sun Food Co-op in an unused building at UMass. The co-op later moved off campus, and by Johnston’s junior year, he and a friend had moved on to start a very successful, vegetarian restaurant called The Noodle--again in unused University space.
The following summer, in 1971, Johnston had a small market garden on borrowed land near Amherst. "I sold vegetables at the co-op, made a couple of trips into Boston with a friend’s van to deliver produce to stores. I probably made a grand total of 300 dollars."
Then he helped organize and manage the Golden Sheaf Natural Foods Store in Providence, Rhode Island, and soon after moved to the communal Erewhon Farm in Alstead, N.H., which supplied produce to Golden Sheaf. The communal aspect of Erewhon was never formal. "The idea was, we are all in this together. There was a lot of youthful energy. You were there, and you were learning to farm, and you had a lot of energy, and you were living together, and that carried the day." The farm, which sold vegetables primarily in New York City and Boston, is "where I got really interested in seeds: where they come from and how the seed business works."
The Seed Business Sprouts
A customer, a food distributor in New York, wanted Japanese vegetables. "You couldn’t easily find the seeds anywhere in this country. I poked around and was able to get some. At the time, the Japanese companies didn’t have any offices in the United States. You had to bring everything in by mail. The Japanese companies knew how to deal with importation, so permits were never a problem."
Other farmers asked Johnston for other varieties, "so I thought, maybe there’s room for a small business here. The next year, the seed work started to come together more in my head." Getting addresses from consulate directories at the Boston Public Library’s business branch, he wrote to consulates worldwide, asking for references for people who sold seeds. "Later people asked me if I worked for somebody to learn about the seed business. I just did it."
So Johnston started Johnny’s Selected Seeds--named for Johnny Appleseed--during his two-year stay at Erewhon. He moved back to his folks’ house in Acton to concentrate on the business, gardening in available space in three nearby towns. One of those gardens was owned by retired carpenter Charlie Wood, who "loved to garden and was always philosophical in a healthy, settled way. I remember one time I was really excited--one of my correspondents had given me some hulless oat seeds, and Charlie said he’d help me plant them. There were only a small number of them. Later that week, I went over there and he told me how many there were. Let’s say it was 528... He saw me looking at him incredulously, and he said, ‘Some day you’ll have time to count the oats, too.’ Every time I think about that, it’s meaningful to me. I’m looking forward to that...not to be so busy all the time."
Another inspiration was renowned corn origins researcher Prof. Walton Galinat of the University of Massachusetts Suburban Experiment Station at Waltham. "I went to see him, and he offered me a job. He said, ‘You’ll have trouble starting a new seed company.’ He would have me come in and just help him with level 1 work, and I really liked the interaction."
Despite Galinat’s warning, learning the intricacies of corn seeds just propelled Johnston further. In late 1973, he had met the publishers of East West Journal, "which at the time was really tiny." He typeset his first, 16-page seed catalog on their old Compugraphic typesetter. Then, in 1974, Ben and Ariel Wilcox, then of Peacemeal Farm in Dixmont, Maine, invited him to use their excess land, so he moved to Dixmont.
Johnston did not have a vision of building a large seed company. "I had a vision of a direction...a picture of the future, and I would try to go there, but how big [the business] was was never really part of that. Doing good financial planning was always a ‘should.’ I never did any budgeting until about the mid-’80s.
"I didn’t think, ‘Well, I heard that going into business for yourself is a good thing, so I’m going to do that.’" Instead, "I wanted to work in seeds, and I really loved the social contact. I’m not an outgoing person, but I like correspondence, and I like one-on-one. Creating this business where people would write and order things and ask questions: That really appealed to me. The U.S. is the best place I know of to do something on your own. It’s very easy to start a business here. I was underground for years. I remember, in 1975, finally going to this guy and saying, ‘I’ve been doing this for a couple of years now. I’m not really making much money, but on the other hand, the IRS doesn’t know I exist. What do I do?’ He said, ‘Well, no problem, we’ll just make a start with the IRS now.’ It was easy. And it just went from there."
Johnston believes "there’s always potential in any business for new enthusiasm, and specifically in the seed business. I think what Tom Stearns [of High Mowing Seeds in Wolcott, Vermont] is doing is pretty cool. His approach and motivations are really different from mine. He’s most interested in seed production versus product development. He’s become quite knowledgeable and capable in the short amount of time he’s been doing it. I was more interested in product development, in plant breeding. I’ve never considered production to be a core strength of Johnny’s. We always feel that we’re better off if we can farm production out, but we know we can’t farm our research [such as variety trials] out." He adds, "I also admire CR Lawn and what he and his staff have accomplished here in Maine at Fedco Seeds. And there are numerous other great characters in the American seed industry."
Asked if breeding vegetables for nutrition was ever a goal, Johnston says that about 10 years ago, Johnny’s explored opportunities in breeding for nutrition, but "I thought that the whole topic was a little too gimmicky, because vegetables are already so nutritious. If you can create better tasting vegetables, that increases consumption, and that’s a good thing. I don’t think malnutrition exists because food doesn’t have enough nourishment. I think it’s probably distribution, eating habits...
"On the other hand, there have been some real advances in nutrition. The carrots we have now that you buy at the supermarket are much higher in carotene than they were when I started in the business. A lot of that comes from the vision and work of the USDA breeding program in Wisconsin. All the carrot breeders in the world are using those parent lines."
Johnny’s has been very successful in breeding niche crops. "When I started," Johnston relates, "I didn’t have any money. I realized quickly that I needed to pick niche crops where I could make a difference with an undercapitalized program. So I worked in squash and pumpkins. That has always been my biggest program." Johnny’s won an All America Selections (AAS) Award for its gorgeous ‘Sunshine’ winter squash in 2004, and in 2005 won the same award for its ‘Bonbon’ winter squash. In fact, the company has won a total of six AAS awards—the most recent (for 2006) for an early, Italian bull's horn type sweet pepper called Carmen.
"When the company got past the point where everyone reported to me, then there were a variety of reasons people were employed, what they wanted out of their job. It’s like a cross-section of society, a microcosm of the local social order. I think that’s why a lot of entrepreneurs keep selling their businesses and starting over: They don’t like the way it feels when it gets there. I didn’t like it either, but I thought that it was important that I get beyond that...by permitting other motivations to exist, and not discounting their importance."
Hiring general manager Mike Comer was another big step. "I have more breathing room now. All my own projects, I used to do evenings and weekends; I was constantly busy. Now I do them during the week and have some time off."
He foresees a time when he may turn the business over to employees or some local entity (his grown son Andrew is not involved with the business), while he retains an informal role. "I grow a bigger garden, ride my bicycle more...maybe continue with some breeding projects."
With some perspective on developing a business, Johnston suggests that the most important thing is to know "why you want to do it...That will be the source of energy. You want to do it because you’re trying to create this thing, or you have this idea... Say you’re going to build this new machine to harvest baby leaf salads--which would be nice; a lot of people would like to have one of those. That’s a good start. Then prototype A1 may actually generate some interest, so then you go on to A2."
Despite the success of his company, Johnston and his wife, Janika Eckert (who did most of the breeding for Johnny’s AAS winning ‘Diva’ cucumber) enjoy a modest lifestyle. They met at a contradance. They drive a 17-year-old Volkswagen and live next door to Johnny’s farm in a small, 1800s Greek Revival house that was a typical, small Maine dairy until the late 1960s. They heat with wood, primarily. They often eat breakfast out of cereal boxes, but on weekends they have pancakes made from flour that they mill themselves—a "wonderful spring wheat" called ‘Polk’ for which Johnny’s produces seed.
"I’ve had my own flour mill for 26 years. It’s a small Meadows 8-inch granite flour mill. This guy thought it was worn out. I bought it for $35, and it needed a new shaft. I sent it back to the factory in North Carolina, and they put a new shaft in it."
The nearly-vegetarian couple thrives on produce grown on Johnny’s farm and in their own small garden and stored in their root cellar, combined with grains and pasta--not an Atkins diet, Johnston jokes, referring to that fad as "losing weight by malnutrition."
Two years ago Johnston and Eckert did splurge and vacation in southern France--but that trip may have just brought them back to the garden. "Home gardening there is so much more common than it is here. Everybody who had space to garden would have a vegetable garden. I got totally psyched and inspired there to grow a bigger home garden."
While he may not be counting oats yet, Johnston is finding time to count kilometers, as he and Eckert share a passion for bicycling. "We try to do our errands by bike. We’ll often take camping trips, leaving from home, carrying the stuff on our bikes. In the past year we rode to Quebec City and through New Brunswick. We’ve been to the White Mountains, Lake Champlain." They also partake in French-spawned, 200- to 1200-km cycling events called ‘brevets’--which translates as ‘certificate.’ "You get something saying you did this when you’re done. They’re not races, but there are time limits, so they’re challenging. I like that. I love the relationship with the machine; I love the fact that it’s really physical."
He also loves times "when I can be out in the field by myself, and I can just feel the earth under my feet. It’s this very powerful feeling."
Some of his employees chide him for his simple lifestyle. Living less than an hour from the coast, he could, like many Mainers, have a boat, they suggest. But Johnston says that for him, a machine to dry squash seeds would be more rewarding. "That’s progress. That’s what I personally identify with."
Soil Fertility: A Simple Matter of Compost
The Johnny’s Selected Seeds farm has a fairly simple method of maintaining its fields: "Compost is the big thing. We basically don’t use any other fertilizer. There were times at the beginning when we needed potash and a little lime, but after that it was just compost and green manures." They relied on their own compost for many years, but are switching to products made by a local business. "It’s one less thing we have to do, while we support them." Johnny’s certified-organic fields typically get about 30 to 40 cubic yards of compost per acre, although they don’t treat every field every year.
Fast-growing grasses are their most important green manures, "because these are erodable soils. The most important thing is to keep the soil from washing during a heavy rain." The company is always experimenting, though--and having a farm manager (Brian Milliken) who is also the product development person helps considerably in knowing what’s useful. Johnston is very excited about a ‘Chickling vetch’ green manure seed that Johnny’s offers in its commercial catalog; it can fix nitrogen in just 45 days--earlier than sweet clover. "It’s amazing; it’s pretty wonderful," says Johnston.
Stay Caught Up
Johnny’s is renowned for its quick and reliable service, and part of that comes from Johnston’s philosophy that "it doesn’t take much more work to stay caught up than it does to get a couple of weeks behind and hold it there, so why not stay caught up?" The company has strict guidelines and procedures for staying caught up. "The staff really got into it and went beyond what I wanted to do a couple of years ago. It used to be, if you called before 10 a.m., we would ship on the same day, then they moved it to noon. Now it’s 2 p.m. So if you call and order stuff, and if we have it in inventory--which we usually do--we’ll get it shipped that day. If you’re here in Maine, or even in California, you can call us in the afternoon and have the seeds the next day [by overnight UPS], and all of us here identify with doing that well. It’s really fun."
Advice for Potential Farmers
Johnston suggests that those who want to start farming "find some soil that’s good" and "make sure you know why you’re going to grow what you’re going to grow; what your markets are going to be; how much of the year you’re going to be able to do this. You might have to have another job too."
He encourages finding value-added products for the farm. "Can you do some processing to increase value? There are workshops on those things all the time."
Farming is possible even in Maine, a difficult place to make a farm work. "If you wanted to have a small dairy, you could probably do it here and sell milk retail and maybe make some cheese, have a low-cash-flow but successful business, if you were talented enough.
"You could say that it would be easier to grow vegetables in Fresno, California, but if you have family here, or there are things you love about Maine, then [soil and climate] become less relevant, because they’re just part of the story."
Sidebar from Maine Farmland Trust
Forever Farmland: Johnny’s Selected Seeds land gets permanent protection
The 119-acre farm where Johnny’s Selected Seeds produces and sells hundreds of varieties of garden seeds is now permanently protected from future non-farm development. Also protected is another parcel of farmland, 45 acres on Route 202, which is integral to the operation.
Rob Johnston Jr. and Janika Eckert, owners of Johnny’s, placed agricultural conservation easements on the farms last November. Maine Farmland Trust, a statewide land trust devoted exclusively to farmland preservation, holds the easement.
"Loss of available land has always been a concern for Rob and me, as we see so many farms being divided up," says Eckert. "We said we never want that to happen to our farm, so we began to think about how we might really protect it."
Eckert contacted Maine Farmland Trust in August 2004, and began the process to ensure the future of the farmland. Working from an outline that prompts careful reflection and forward thinking, Eckert, Johnston and LouAnna Perkins, an attorney and executive director of Maine Farmland Trust, carefully crafted documents that took into account current uses and future plans for the farm. For example, the restrictions allow for additional farm buildings and the possibility of one more single-family residence, but require that these be sited so as to keep the most productive soils available for farming.
"It is really exciting to protect a high profile farm like this one," says Perkins. "Rob and Janika have set a wonderful example for others."
The 164 acres consist of roughly half open field and cropland and half woodland. Eckert and Johnston rent additional acreage for their operations.
In Eckert’s words, "Having gone through the process and finding it worthwhile, I think something we could do in the future is to keep an eye out for other farmland to protect."
Besides the farm, Johnny’s operates a retail store in Winslow. The company employs 90 people, including 10 on the farm full time. Visit the Johnny's website.