About RF Johnson & Sons Farm
About RF Johnson & Sons Farm
Located in: Sparta, Michigan
Founded: 1914 (original property)
Operated by: Aaron and Roy Johnson
Specializes in: Strawberries, peppers and tomatoes, as well as a variety of other berries and greens.
Aaron Johnson: "Know your farmer, know your food."
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When Aaron Johnson hit his “mid-life thing,” he decided that he didn’t want to be in the flooring business anymore. A second generation fruit farmer from Sparta, full-time farming seemed like the obvious choice.
Flooring career in the past, Aaron Johnson now grows heirloom tomatoes, greens and strawberries on the same property his grandfather farmed during the Second World War.
“Man, I just wanna do something else,” Johnson recalls thinking when he made the transition from floors to fruit. “So I did. And I’m pretty good at it.”
He is so good, in fact, that in the five years he’s been operating his farm, shoppers at the Rockford and Fulton Street Farmers markets ask specifically for his tomatoes and strawberries. Johnson believes it is his dedication to a quality product that motivates people to seek his produce out.
“I have to compete with Meijer, and they’re huge, but the flavor of their stuff isn’t the greatest, but people want cheap. Well, people are getting sick of cheap. That’s why they come to market,” Johnson explains.
Growing food for the market is still a family affair.
“It’s my dad and I basically that started it,” Aaron Johnson says of the farm they run together. His father, Roy Johnson, maintains that his son’s dedication drives their production.
“Aaron’s a genius. He knows how to make the berries grow best, how to make them sweet...everything,” Roy Johnson says.
Although Aaron Johnson maintains that strawberries are “really hard to grow,” his care and dedication is evidenced by rows of raised beds, outfitted with plastic mulch and drip tape. The drip tape allows for more control when watering and chemical-free fertilizing. This elaborate process, Aaron Johnson believes, starts with the soil.
“The soil is the base everything grows out of, so if you start with the soil, and you go up from there. It just takes time and experience. If you put it into the earth, it’ll come right back at you. You gotta take care of the earth, or it ain’t gonna take care of you.”
Taking care of the earth has become standard with Aaron Johnson. In order to make sure the nutrients in the soil do not become depleted, he plants cover crops to give the ground a break in between planting his vegetables. No chemical fertilizers or pesticides are used on any of the berries, vegetables or greens. The chemical-free avenue that he is taking, while more costly and time intensive, is one that Aaron Johnson insists makes for a better product.
“I’ve seen healthier plants [without chemicals]. I think you can do more if you grow right, if you start with the soil,” Aaron Johnson says.
In the future, growing right is something that Aaron Johnson plans to keep on doing. With his berries being sold from Grand Rapids to Chicago, finding enough hands to pick has become a challenge. For now, he plans to continue doing his best to grow a good berry.
“You can charge for a product, but give them quality. Give them something, give them the best you can give them," Johnson says. "I think it makes a big difference."
After I graduate from Grand Valley next spring (with a shiny degree in Writing and Spanish) I plan on WWOOFing around Europe or South America (or both), writing a lot of stories, meeting a lot of people, and cooking a lot of food. For now, I am more than excited to get to know farmers in the area, and let you get to know them too.
Reports on: Food, farmers, farmers with food, and farmers markets. Generally awesome things.