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Fostering Sustainability and Innovation in Agriculture

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Enriched in Organic Soil, Johnny’s Selected Seeds Grows Seed Stock for the Future

February 15, 2013 |

Cherry Tomato Harvest at the Johnny's Selected Seeds growing farm in Albion, Maine. Photo Credit: Johnny's Selected Seeds.

Rob Johnston, founder of Johnny’s Selected Seeds, got an early lesson in the importance of seed diversity back in 1972, when he formed a communal truck farm in southern New Hampshire, growing 15 acres of vegetables that were marketed through a co-op in Boston and New York.

A Japanese distributor in New York wanted specialty produce and Johnston had to go to Japan simply to find the seeds. The resulting odyssey into exotic seed sourcing awakened a different kind of seed, planted long ago in him by his grandfather, a Pennsylvania farmer who used to take Johnston out into the fields of a summer evening to “listen to the corn grow.”

He set up Johnny’s Selected Seeds (originally called Johnny’s Appleseeds, until he was informed that name was already trademarked) and issued his first seed catalogue in 1974. Since then, his growing farm in Albion, Maine has expanded with the times; flower varietals were added to the seed stock; he started breeding exotic ‘gourmet’ vegetables to serve the growing number of international chefs’ demands; the farm in Albion was designated one of the few All-America Selections trial grounds for vegetables; and a number of his vegetables won awards from All-America Selections.

His farm has been certified organic since 1979, reflecting his belief that the best vegetable seed grows from plants nurtured on organically enriched soil, unexposed to pesticides and herbicides.

But if you ask Johnston about the importance of sustainability in American farming, he’ll hedge.

“I think the word is kind of vague,” he said. “Since I was a kid, I’ve wanted to help growers produce healthier food, because when agriculture is successful, a community is successful. I think it’s more important to talk about the vibrancy of communities that have their own food economies. Over the years, I’ve seen a really big shift in that direction. That, to me, is sustainability.”

He has a larger investment in sustainability than he allows, however. In 2000, Johnny’s joined the Safe Seed Initiative, pledging that the company will not knowingly buy or sell genetically engineered seeds or plants.

“I think moving DNA in a living organism is fascinating and remarkable, but I don’t really favor it,” Johnston said. “It sidesteps evolution.”

Not that he minds tinkering with evolution. His selective seed breeding (which he calls “guided evolution”) has created “better food,” and has expanded his catalogue to offer seeds that taste better, are more pest resistant and have vastly wider varieties than a quarter-century ago.

The crew of Johnny's Selected Seeds circa 1980 with founder Rob Johnston (seated in center). Photo Courtesy: Johnny's Selected Seeds.

“I just don’t think preparing for our future should rely on measures that are wholly artificial,” Johnston said.

For all his insouciance toward the concept of sustainability, Johnston and his wife Janika Eckert have taken a number of steps toward maintaining locally sourced, organic produce as the norm.

In 2005, they donated an easement on the Albion farm and on an additional 45 acres they own nearby to the Maine Farmland Trust, ensuring that the land will never be developed or used for any purpose other than farming.

And in 2006, Johnston and Eckert began a transition to employee ownership of the company, selling shares to an Employee Stock Ownership Trust. Today, Johnny’s employees own 100 percent of the company’s stock.

Johnston said GMO seed breeding by the companies like Monsanto and DuPont are likely here to stay.

“I don’t think there’s a corn or soybean grower out there who doesn’t want GMO seeds,” he said. “The GMO seeds don’t necessarily solve all the growers’ problems, but they’ll continue with them as long as they are satisfied with the performance. The big bio players are only responding to farmers demands.”

Johnny’s Selected Seeds catalogue offers a wide range of product, from vegetable, fruit, herb and flower seeds for the commercial or “avid home growers,” to farm seed for forage crops, grains, legumes and grasses appropriate for cover crops and smother crops for weed suppression. Their Tool & Supplies department offers everything from composting to salad spinners, with hand tools you probably never knew you needed.

His customers are “mixed-market,” from home gardeners to large commercial ventures that grow a variety of fruits and vegetables.

“Many of our customers aren’t in that perfect growing area or know everything there is to know about farming,” Johnston said. “So they need seeds and tools widely adapted to their circumstances to successfully grow crops.”

As the going local mantra spreads, Johnston feels that more and more growers will be going purely organic since vendors at Farmers Markets need to be able to look their customer in the eye when they sell them product.

For the future, he thinks that agriculture will have to adapt to the demands of an exploding – and hungry – population, with year-round growing techniques that have not been available to, say, a New England farmer in the past.

“Whether it’s breeding seeds for better food storage or for greenhouse growing, the successful farmer must be able to adapt to changing climates and changing populations,” Johnston said. “I believe our organic growing conditions will help them achieve that.”

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