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Agricultural Adventures: Mill River Farm

“Farming has been the most challenging and demanding endeavor of my life. “ -- Jan Johnson, owner of Mill River Farm

New Marlborough — People are attracted to farming in many ways. Some are born into it. Others study it at university and then begin farming. Still others choose it as a second, or perhaps third, career. Jan Johnson, owner of Mill River Farm, falls in the latter category. After a successful career in the corporate world, she moved to the Berkshires and started beekeeping. After taking many courses and reading everything she could get her hands on, she bought her own farm and began farming in earnest.

Johnson’s first crop was honey. Both her father and grandfather are beekeepers so it seemed natural for her to start there. She took a class from Cornell that helped, as did closely following “Beekeeping for Dummies.” Johnson started with one beehive, and not surprisingly, had nothing to sell at the beginning. It was not until her third year that she successfully overwintered bees.

Jan Johnson on her John Deere, turning over a field. Photo: Peter Chapin
Jan Johnson on her John Deere, turning over a field. Photo: Peter Chapin

During her second year of farming some friends suggested that she sell honey at the Great Barrington Farmers Market, and she’s been there ever since, albeit with more and more product. It was suggested that she sell beeswax candles, about which Johnson knew nothing. But she’s a quick study so candles got added to her market offerings. After she moved to Mill River Farm, she expanded her offerings to include many vegetables.

Mill River Farm is 32 acres, including bedrock outcropping. “That seems like a lot of land,” she says, “but 1/3 of it is forested.” Johnson has developed a forest stewardship plan with the state that includes a combination of sylbopasture and agroforestry. Just in case those terms are unfamiliar to you, here’s the scoop: sylbopasture is the simultaneous management of healthy tree growth and animal pasture. Agroforestry, defined as planting trees and shrubs amongst crops and animals, is closely related.

Mill river Farm goats clearing brush.
Mill river Farm goats clearing brush.

Johnson has created a plan for selective thinning of trees both to preserve diversity but also to favor the most valuable tree elements. She is opening up the canopy to get a wide variety of foraged plants for her goats and pigs. Her model for this is a three-year study done by Cornell University called “Goats in the Woods.” The purpose of the study was to establish that goats and pigs are effective at clearing out invasive plants. Not only is it cheaper than other methods, but it helps to preserve the environment.

wintering the chickens in a hooped, free-range coop.
wintering the chickens in a hooped, free-range coop.

Currently, her farm is home to 25 goats and four pigs. There are perhaps 100 chickens and a few beef cows. Her chickens lay in a mobile coop and take a good part of their nutrients from the ground. She feeds them organic grain but they also eat bugs and worms. Johnson recently received her poultry license, so now you can buy whole chickens from her at the Farmers Market. State regulations require an additional license to bring chicken pieces.

Johnson notes that many customers ask for help in dealng with a whole chicken. “They’re used to buying chicken pieces,” she says, and thus need a quick tutorial on cooking with the whole bird. She has been asked about this so often that she is giving serious thought to producing a few short videos to help customers who are unfamiliar with roasting a whole chicken.

Given Johnson’s continuous quest for the most effective growing practices, she rotates her crops. For example, she will grow brassicas (cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, and Brussels sprouts) in a field, and then follow up there with a different crop, such as corn, or carrots, or beans. She uses the “no till” method, which promotes growth and seriously cuts down on maintenance.

Tamworth piglets.
Tamworth piglets.

As a relatively new farmer, Johnson does not have the established customer base that is necessary for her farm to succeed. So selling at a farmers market is vital to her bottom line. Johnson has been selling at the Great Barrington Farmers Market for five years.

But she points out that farmers markets have become tougher because there are now so many of them. “There is a market in every town, or so it seems, and when you add that to the fact that fewer people are devoting time to cook or even make a salad, it’s rough.” The feedback she is getting is that people want antibiotic, free-pastured, organic meat.

“The farmers markets are great because they allow for dialogue and feedback,” says Johnson. “I never imagined that that I’d spend every Saturday for the past five years working the farmers market. What with the prep, setting up, and taking down, the markets are real work. But every market provides a small opportunity to talk to people about what we’re doing and how it’s not difficult to cook something.”

Pastured broilers.
Pastured broilers.

Johnson particularly appreciates the winter markets sponsored by Berkshire Grown, the farm advocacy organization on whose board she sits. “I was able to keep my farm crew because of the work needed for the winter markets,” she says.

Berkshire Grown initiated partnerships for new farmers, pairing experienced farmers with those who are just starting out. Johnson was paired with Sheffield farmer June Wolfe, “whose practical common sense was a real benefit for a new farmer. She’d look at a draft of what I would offer and say ‘you’ll never have cabbage in early June.’ ” That is the type of expertise a new farmer truly appreciates. While Johnson was never matched up with Martin Stosiek of Markristo Farm, “every time I approached him, he was so kind and generous.”

Johnson’s 23-year old son Pete is an integral part of her work crew. Pete learned about farming years ago while a student at a boarding school in Lake Placid that has been using organic farming methods since the 1920’s. “Farm tours were a part of life at his school,” Johnson says. She fully appreciates Pete’s common sense

A field of spring greens.
A field of spring greens.

and flair for marketing. In addition to Pete, she employs two graduates of Mt. Everett Regional High School, and two current students there who are working mostly with the bees. In all, she has two full-time and three part-time workers on her farm. “I don’t count,” she says…without irony.

Johnson has a standing offer to the New Marlborough Elementary School in Mill River to visit the farm. This autumn, she will begin providing food for the Southern Berkshire Regional School District.

“Farming has been the most challenging and demanding endeavor of my life,” says Johnson. “But I’m absolutely glad I did it. It feels like a mission. When I think of what we’ve done in turning away from conventional agriculture, I think we’ve created a worthwhile contribution.

 

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