Family farm more than pipe dream for Johnson
BELLE MEAD — Dale Johnson is the fifth generation working on his family’s Bridgepoint Run Farm and though he works off the farm as well, he bristles at anyone who calls him a hobby farmer.
“That really grinds my gears,” Johnson said. “It’s not a hobby, it’s essentially a second career.
“It’s a second job. A lot of times it takes over your other job.”
Johnson and family members manage about 500 acres, much of it for hay, but also have a grass-fed beef herd and grow produce for retail sale at their roadside stand.
Johnson took on more responsibility at the farm in 2015, a year after graduating from Penn State University.
He worked for an agriculture supply company for that year and said he enjoyed the work but his heart was back on the farm.
“I couldn’t picture myself anywhere else but our farm,” he said. “I’ve always enjoyed it.”
Along with farming, he began working with his father, John Johnson Jr., doing plumbing work in the winter months.
Dale recently started the five-year process to be certified as a Master Plumber.
The off-farm work allows him some flexibility to keep the farm going and help in managing the risk farmers face each year growing crops and raising livestock.
It’s something the family has done for generations as Dale’s grandfather and great-grandfather managed a bus company for the local public schools and his father’s work as a plumber.
“They all understand, they had off-farm jobs.”
The farm had dairy cows until the 1970s when it transitioned to raising beef, grain, sweet corn and tomatoes. Tremendous deer pressure has made growing corn and soybeans virtually impossible on the farm so Dale shifted again to rotational grazing for the beef cattle.
Dale said it’s not uncommon to see 80 to 90 deer in the alfalfa field at certain times of the year.
“No. 1, it’s tough to grow corn here,” he said. “No. 2, it’s going where the market is. Everyone want’s grass fed.”
With many residents in his area weary about getting a half of quarter of beef at one time, he said they’ve had their most success selling 20-pound and 40-pound sampler packs to customers and also sell beef to some area restaurants and the Hillsboro Farm Country Market.
Deer forced him to put up a fence around his vegetable field as well, in order to have crops to keep the roadside wagon stand stocked all summer long.
The wagon began with Dale’s grandmother selling tomatoes and homemade tomato sauce and juice.
Operating with a cash box and the honor system, it’s one of the farm’s calling cards.
“People like the wagon. It’s kind of a niche in that it’s something you’d see back in the ’70s. It’s got it’s own little charm.”
The family expanded the wagon with more produce in the 1990s and Dale incorporated growing in high tunnel greenhouses when he came back.
“I love the high tunnels,” he said. “ If I could put up another 10 of those I would.”
The tunnels have helped Dale implement his “no spray” philosophy on his vegetable growing.
He’s used chemicals in the past and sprays wheat and hay fields when it’s needed, but made the decision to manage the vegetables differently.
“For the most part, people have accepted that,” he said. “You know what you’re getting. It’s certainly put a dent in the efficiency so I just plant a little more and accept some of the loss.”
He tries to avoid using commercial fertilizer on the vegetables as well, opting for cover crops and manure from the beef herd.
“I’m trying to keep a closed loop system for the most part,” he said. “The manure pretty much feeds the vegetables through the season.”
It’s been a closed loop, more or less, regarding workers on the farm as well, relying almost entirely on family members to get jobs done.
Situated in an affluent part of the county and just a short drive from Princeton University, he has a lot of nearby customers who want his products but Dale said it’s been challenging to find local help willing to work on the farm, even to sit at the wagon stand and sell the produce.
“I’ve had a couple nice kids work here but it’s been tough,” he said.
Still, Dale said he sees room to expand the farm “where we could still handle it;” growing the beef herd and adding more high tunnels for vegetables.
With the challenges he faces, one thing he doesn’t worry about is loosing the farm to further development in the county. Dale’s grandfather, John Johnson Sr., entered the farm into state’s Farmland Preservation program in 2008.
“It’s helped us to keep the farm going,” Dale said.
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