The night before my journey to Johnny’s Selected Seeds, in Albion, Maine, I printed maps and read up on the history of the business. Though I’ve been a fan of their seeds for years, I didn’t know much about the genesis of the company. Perusing the website, I learned that Founder and Chairman, Rob Johnston, started the company at age 22, with $500 of savings, from a farmhouse attic. The company now distributes over 600, 000 information-packed catalogues a year and takes in $15 million in sales annually.
On the drive up to Albion from Bath, I was listening to NPR’s Maine Calling, which was hosting a QnA with Maine Representative Chellie Pingree. Coincidentally, the first caller was a man whose wife works at Johnny’s Selected Seeds. The caller asked how the Farm Bill, currently being debated in Congress, would affect his family. Pingree talked passionately about farming in Maine and advocated for taking corn and soybean subsidies out of the bill so that it would benefit smaller farms. Since the bill only comes to the floor every 5 years, she expressed dismay about the inability of politicians to collaborate on this important issue and come to a successful resolution. I was grateful for the timing of the program, as I headed for the farm visit newly aware of the complex relationship between food, big business, and politics in America and newly grateful for the success of a business like Johnny’s Selected Seeds.
In spite a stack of maps and notes, I initially drove to the wrong location, arriving at the Fulfillment Center instead of the farm. Though I love the fact there’s a place called The Fulfillment Center, it wasn’t the pastoral vision I’d anticipated.
I redirected to Foss Hill Road and found what I later learned is the Home Farm of Johnny’s Selected Seeds. As with the other farms I’d visited, Johnny’s is spread out over many different locations for crops, research, business, and communications.
Each of my farm runs begins with an abundance of dialogue and ends with a series of drawings; the actual farm visits are just a small part of the project. Because of the scale of the operation at Johnny’s Selected Seeds, and related concerns about my safety, it took some extra communication to put the plan in place; however, when I arrived in Albion, I found a small, hard-working operation, and a got a warm and surprising reception.
As I pulled into a small parking lot, I noticed a few people studying paperwork at a picnic table, and beyond the tall deer fence, I could see figures bent over fields that stretched into the distance. I hovered awkwardly for a few minutes, unsure of where to go. The main door appeared to be locked and I didn’t want to start running without connecting with someone first. As I approached the door to the small office building, I intercepted a woman on her way out and asked if she’d heard of my project. She hadn’t, but offered to take me inside to find a manager. We walked down a cool, dim hallway, and after searching for a few minutes, she said, “Well, Rob’s here, why don’t we go talk to him.” My stomach did a little flip; I was thrilled! After introducing myself to Rob, I shared a bit about what I hoped to accomplish by running around his property, and about my intention to include a range of farms, in terms of scale, location, and production. Rob generously offered to give me a quick tour of the farm and to send me running in the right direction. After describing how the farm extends to multiple plots on different sites, he pointed to the the forest beyond the fields, which is also part of the property. He didn’t recommend running it, however, thinking it would be a formality. In this case, that felt right to me too. Each run has inspired something different in terms of my allegiance to the actual property lines. In the case of Johnny’s Selected Seeds, it seemed most appropriate to use the border that was so clearly presented to me–to run the edge of the deer fence.
Most of my runs have been fairly solitary and there has been the persistent possibility of getting lost. In this case, the run was a mile long, wrapped around a rectangle, and young farmers were planting, weeding, and watering throughout. Several times, I surprised someone lost in thought, hands in the dirt. With a smile, I’d shout, “I’m running the farm!” They responded with friendly chuckles, waves, and “Have fun!”
Though the run was short, it wasn’t without dangers. I kept a close eye out for rocks, compost heaps, burn holes, machine parts, and bees, and I had a swampy collision with stinging nettles. Though they’re painful to touch, I’ve since learned that stinging nettles have a long history of medicinal use for joint pain, arthritis, eczema, hay fever, gout, and more! I was in the middle of them, up to my elbows, before I felt the sharp stings all over my arms and legs. I tried to tip-toe out, but the only option was to plow through, and I ended up with some uncomfortable hives for the rest of the day. I’ll have to add stinging nettles to the list of things I didn’t anticipate being afraid of (see Bedrock Real for the first list!).
When I finished the run and returned to the parking lot, everyone seemed occupied, so I sipped some water and hit the road. I was grateful to have connected with the land and with Rob, and I was eager to get back to my own raised beds, where Johnny’s Seeds were taking root and transforming into two of my favorites: kale and Bright Lights chard!
Luce, These always leave me hungry for more! A wonderful story.
Alison Hawthorne Deming
Love this! If you like Johnny’s Seeds, you should run around Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah, Iowa sometime. All heirloom seeds, started by two people many years ago, awesome seeds.
Thanks for your comment–I’ll check out Seed Savers. I’m beginning to ponder what my next project will be…maybe Iowa farms! 🙂
Love reading these Lucinda. We are all learing more about OUR Maine farms.