From mules to tractors, farm family keeps tradition
Published 10:33 pm Saturday, March 7, 2009
For the Johnson family, farming is all in the family.
“It’s a family-run business,” said James Johnson, who said that having his family involved in the business is his favorite part of the job.
Perhaps that’s why the Johnson family received the 2009 Farm Family of the Year Award from the Hampton Roads Chamber of Commerce. The award is given to families whose successes in agribusiness contribute to Suffolk’s economy and cultural heritage, according to a press release.
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The Johnson family – which includes James; his wife, Glenda; his son, Matthew; and his daughter-in-law, Kristy – grow peanuts, cotton, soybeans and corn on more than 1,500 acres in the Holland area. The family tradition is an important part of the farming business – James’ father and grandfather also were farmers, and his father received the Farm Family of the Year honor in 1987. Glenda’s parents also were farmers.
James and Glenda, who were high school sweethearts, grew up working on their parents’ farms, and now work the land where James grew up. Matthew also caught the farming bug – when he graduated from Lakeland High School in 2002, he rented his first 65 acres and began to farm it with rented equipment. He and his wife, Kristy, who was also his high school sweetheart, now have a 9-month-old son, Zachariah. The family is waiting to see if he will continue the tradition.
Farming has changed a lot since his grandfather got into the business, Johnson said. With advances in technology and equipment, it is now possible to work more land with less labor.
“We went from mules to tractors, and that’s in 50, 60 years,” he said.
However, some things have gone downhill, too, he said. The cost of supplies goes up continuously, but the price of crops has not followed suit, he said. For example, this year he’ll be using a different type of fertilizer because its price didn’t increase as much as the price of last year’s fertilizer.
“This is the only business you get less and less money for your crops,” Matthew said.
The family used to raise animals, as well, but stopped when Suffolk did away with its slaughterhouses. Besides, raising animals means that the farmers never get a single day off – not even Christmas – because the animals must be milked, fed, watered and checked on, Matthew said.
Despite the challenges in the farming business, none of the four family members said they would do anything different. Farming is, almost by necessity, a family business, they said.
“You can’t just start from scratch and bankroll a whole operation, unless you’re a millionaire,” Matthew said.
Glenda Johnson said having family involved, and having her son carrying on the tradition, makes it that much more rewarding.
“It’s really special,” she said. “So few of the young people are going into it.”
Kristy Johnson, Matthew’s wife, contributes to the farm by helping with the bookkeeping and taking care of Zachariah, who played with a farm animals book and figurines while the rest of the family talked. The Johnsons also employ two workers full-time at the farm, one of whom has been there since James was a child.
“He’s like family too,” James said.
James and Glenda also have a daughter, who teaches school in Chesapeake. She and her husband also help at the farm.
The Johnson family will be recognized at the Suffolk State of the City event on April 23, as well as at an upcoming city council meeting.