Doin’ it different

| 29 Apr 2013 | 01:18

Every house but one on Johnson Road in Chester is occupied by Johnsons. In the middle of Johnson Road is CF Johnson & Son Farm, a 190 cow dairy surrounded by hundreds of acres of rocky corn fields that feed the cows.

“I guess you could call it fairly neat” to live on a road named for you, allowed Sandy Johnson, 83, also known as Pop. Pop is the “son” in CF Johnson & Son. The following is a conversation he enjoys.

Where do you live? Johnson Road.

Who are you? Well, I’m Johnson.

His chuckle is slow and contagious. His granddaughter, Laura Nywening, looks down at her mud boots and laughs.

Nywening, 26, is following in the family tradition of farming. Sort of.

Neither of Nywening’s parents are farmers, and Nywening wasn’t planning on being one, either. She went to college to be a history teacher. After applying to 40 schools with not a single bite, she got a position with the National Park Service in outdoor education. She liked that better than being a classroom teacher. Then she went to work for Heiffer Farm, an education farm in Massachusetts for a year, where she realized that she “actually really liked farming.”

That was a surprise. Growing up, she’d been teased for living on a farm. Kids made fun of her, she said, because it sometimes smelled like manure when they drove past.

“Sometimes?” mocked Jay Uhler. Uhler, 25, is a friend who also grew up in Chester, although he and Nywening didn’t connect until later.

“It is so unkind that you’re laughing right now,” Nywening admonished.

After working at Sandbrook Meadow Farm in Stockton, NJ and Keith’s Farm in Greenville, NY (see page 12), Nywening knew what she wanted to do. She and Uhler, who also worked two seasons at Keith’s Farm, got business cards made. They read: “Peace and Carrots Farm,” and below that, “Reviving Agriculture in Orange County.”

“Reviving agriculture” might sound insulting, coming from a fourth generation upstart whose family has been in the dairy business since the railroad came to Chester. But all the Johnsons are on the same page about the future of the dairy. Its closing is a matter of when, not if, and it’s no cause to get sentimental.

“You can’t do dairy in Orange County anymore,” said James Johnson, 28, who’s been fixing the harvester in the repair shop. Dairy farming is what he always wanted to do and what he’s done since he stood knee-high to his uncles. “Now I’m not so sure. I don’t know whether to go someplace else.”

“In the 80s we made money, lots of money,” said Gary Johnson, 56. He’s been out on the combine, knocking down corn that stayed up all winter because the fall was stormy and too wet to harvest. “We could do things. We built a barn, built a methane digester. Now it’s lousy.”

“I don’t see the dairy continuing,” said Pop. “Not enough money. You do know Orange County is one of the highest tax counties in the U.S. It’s a list you don’t want to be on.” He’s cheering the encroaching development. More houses will mean higher land prices. And maybe they’ll bring clientele for Laura.

Peace and Carrots Farm is just a speck on the surface of CF Johnson & Son Farm. The fledgling operation consists of a slice of cornfield where Nywening and Uhler built their greenhouse from a $1,000 kit that Pop bought them, and an acre and a half of another cornfield across the street where they’ll sow their crops. The business model is a 60-member organic vegetable CSA. They have seven people signed up so far.

CSA stands for community supported agriculture – a share system in which customers pay the farmer a lump sum at the beginning of the season and then get seasonal produce all year long. It is vital because farmers get money at the season’s start when they’re incurring expenses for seeds and equipment. In addition they get top price by selling directly to the people who will eat their food. They are cutting out the middlemen: processors, wholesalers, restaurants who all take their cut.

“Reviving agriculture” is a tall task for a couple of friends with a couple grand of start-up money. If it’s going to work, the CSA is how.

Ask around and you’ll find no shortage of small farmers who see direct marketing as the key to long-term survival.

John Glebocki, a fifth generation farmer working 120 acres in Goshen, has moved the family farm away from growing onions and celery for wholesale, and now grows 240 vegetable varieties for sale to high-end New York City restaurants and specialty grocers like Marlow & Sons, Jimmy’s 43, Splendid Spoon. “If someone needs something weird or rare, they’ll come to us,” Glebocki said.

But the transformation is not yet complete. If Glebocki’s two young daughters are going to be the sixth generation of farmers, they’ll be selling straight to customers. “We’re definitely headed toward value-added,” he said. “Growing product and having it packed into purees, or frozen. The distribution of those value-added products, if my girls are interested, is probably where it’s going to be.”

James Kleister, a twenty-something farmer who after 200 years is the only one left farming the shrinking family dairy in Washingtonville, has put up a sign on the road and started selling raw milk to passers-by in a bid to save the 50 acres left of the 350 acre farm. “I want to be the last farm here, in this town, so when people ride by they see this is what this town was like.”

Transition can be painful, though. Farmers in particular can be set in their ways. There’s an “old school mentality,” said Glebocki, who farmed alongside his grandfather. The elder Glebocki understood the need for change, but was never a fan of things like safety glasses. “I’ve been doing it this way for 40 years, I’m going to do it this way forever.”

“Talk to any of the growers in the black dirt, and there’s at least one person in the family that no one will talk to,” one farmer told Dirt.

Jay Uhler has been sleeping in the greenhouse. It’s clear upon meeting him that he’s been camping out somewhere, because he exudes the aroma of a wood fire. He says it’s because he doesn’t like getting up in the middle of the night and going outside in the cold to stoke the wood burning stove. But now that it’s warmer and he’s still sleeping in there, it’s hard not to wonder if he feels most comfortable inside this cocoon, with his guitar, bike and a tea kettle on top of the stove, surrounded by seedlings unfurling.

The Johnsons have been incredibly helpful, letting Nywening and Uhler use their land free of charge, helping them build the greenhouse, and fixing what needs fixing. The stove that heats the greenhouse was built by Uncle Gary in the 70s.

But the fact remains, Uhler is an outsider with butt-length dreds, a pierced septum and a penchant for freight train hopping. Sure he grew up in Chester, but he inhabits a parallel universe to the one on Johnson Road. The difference looms large as Uhler recounts catching buses home from San Antonio, while three blue-sweatshirted dairymen who can’t remember their last vacation stand around and nod.

Pop breaks the ice. “Hobo,” he says and grins.

Even if he feels out of place sometimes, farming is the first job that has brought Uhler satisfaction. It’s also the hardest he has ever worked. Before farming, he’d had jobs in retail, warehouses, delivery. Installing Culligan water coolers was the closest he had come to learning a skill he considered practical. “I was really sick of doing crappy jobs,” he said. Unconcerned with making money, “I would just work as little as I had to.”

Now that he’s found his calling, Uhler has come to appreciate yeomen’s labor. He gets excited about digging up potatoes. “I’m happier,” he says simply.

So what do the Johnsons think of their dredlocked tenants? Nywening suspects the rest of her family thinks she’s crazy, but if that’s the case they don’t let on.

Uncle Gary nods toward the greenhouse, which is so warm that condensation drips down the plastic. Flats of onions, scallions, tomatoes, peppers, lettuce, leeks, spinach, arugula, kale, and bok choy line the benches inside. “Things are growing,” he shrugs. “Marketing is everything.” The real test, then, will be whether the CSA fills up.

“If it works, it works,” says Cousin James. “I hope it does.”