Johnson continues lifetime path as NOFA-NJ’s current vice president
TITUSVILLE — What began as a fascination with composting in his teenage years has turned into a lifelong career path for Northeast Organic Farmers Association-New Jersey chapter Vice President Al Johnson.
Not only does Johnson manage the church garden for the Unitarian Universalist Church in Titusville, he also tends nearly year-round to a sizeable garden in his own front yard near the Delaware River.
Johnson was raised in Worcester, Mass., but has been in the Garden State since 1986. Even in high school, he said — on the back porch of the solar-efficient, southward facing home he designed himself — he liked to organize and be involved, so he served as president of the student council.
He enrolled in the business program at Lehigh University in eastern Pennsylvania but spent summers back home, lifeguarding at Cape Cod National Seashore.
“I always liked to spend weekends on Cape Cod during summers. Luckily, I got a job as a lifeguard there. One summer I met people from other parts of the country, older guys in their mid-30’s. They’d say, ‘Oh you guys are so lucky, you get to spend your whole summer here, I spend 50 weeks a year in an office.’ I began to realize I didn’t really want to work in an office,” he said.
Upon graduating from Lehigh University in 1972, he decided to go back to work as a lifeguard. After that summer was over, he got a job on the maintenance crew at Cape Cod National Seashore.
He worked weekends cleaning up trash from the beaches as well as employee houses. At one of the houses there was a barrel full of fish entrails.
“I mentioned it to my partner in the truck, who was a graduate biology student. He said ‘You can use that as compost.’ By later that afternoon, he’d taught me everything he knew about composting, which was quite a bit. I was fascinated with composting and soon I had compost piles at my mother’s yard, my sister’s yard, my brother’s house, and at Cape Cod.”
“I made all this compost, then said, ‘Well, now I’m going to learn how to use it,’ so I taught myself how to grow vegetables. My mother got me a subscription to ‘Organic Gardening,’ and for years I read that magazine from cover to cover.”
“At that point there wasn’t a lot of science behind organic growing and it was all trial and error, you could do it with gardening and they were trying to apply it to farming,” Johnson said.
He began organic gardening on a larger scale at the park at Cape Cod and later attended an organic gardening camp run by Boston University in Peterborough, N.H.
To gain admission to a graduate program, he recalls telling them, “I would like to come to your graduate program but I would also like to run your garden. That was my real beginning in organic farming other than just backyard plots at the seashore. I did that for a couple of years and got my Master’s Degree and then moved up to Danby, Vermont and became an organic agricultural instructor.”
After his wife Bunny got out of law school, the couple went into the Peace Corps. They were stationed on the island of Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands. When they returned to the United States, the Stoney Brook Millstone Watershed Association in Pennington was just starting an organic program. Johnson and his wife moved to New Jersey in 1986.
A few months after getting settled in west Jersey, he became treasurer of the then-fledgling NOFA-NJ chapter, which at that time had only about 20 members.
The association back then was comprised of ag students and farmers, Johnson recalled, while other NOFA chapters were developing their own certification programs.
“I kept saying why don’t we think about doing this. Nobody had motivation for it until the green markets in New York City started saying in 1988 and ’89, if you’re going to sell as organic, you have to be certified. Suddenly, a mass of people were interested in certification.”
The first few meetings to address certification issues drew just four or five people, but later that group grew to about 20 people, Johnson said.
“We found ways to adopt standards for certification that other states were already doing.
“Our first year of certification I think we brought in two inspectors from New York State,” he recalled of 1989.
Johnson himself began inspecting in 1990 with Elaine Barbor, then Hunterdon County Extension agent and 12 farms were certified as organic within those first few years, including Johnson’s own farm, then in Pennington. He said NOFA-NJ ran the certification program in the state from 1989 until about 2006, “but the Department of Ag was involved and NOFA was able to get clerical help for all of this from the state.”
The state’s current director of organic certification, Erich Bremer, was originally an employee of NOFA-NJ, Johnson said.
After returning from two years away at University of California at Santa Cruz, Johnson did not jump back on the board at NOFA-NJ, as he had two young kids to look after. He got involved again as an officer with NOFA-NJ in 2014, after his kids were almost ready for college.
On Aug. 3, Johnson, Ted Klett and others involved with NOFA-NJ will offer a tour of church-based vegetable and fruit gardens. The garden he cares for at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Hopewell is about the same size as the one in his front yard, about 40 by 25 feet, and of course, it has fencing to prevent deer and groundhog damages.
Since 1990, Johnson has been an organic inspector full-time. Even during his time in Santa Cruz, he did organic inspecting part-time.
“At one time there were up to 10 agencies [and organizations] that I inspected for, and it all got to be kind of complicated so I cut back,” he said, noting he did organic inspections full-time after returning from Santa Cruz in 1995. Any farmer in New Jersey can choose their certifier, it does not have to be performed by the Department of Agriculture.
Among other groups and agencies he’s worked for, besides the state’s Department of Agriculture, include the Pennsylvania Certified Organic group and a bevy of private certifying organizations.
Johnson has been there for most of the journey as NOFA-NJ grew from 30 farmers and backyard vegetable growers to what it is today, an association with more than 400 members in almost all of the state’s 21 counties.
“Now, Adrian Hyde does a brilliant job with planning so many of the events and he is such an asset to the staff,” Johnson explained.
“I see interest in organic farming continuing to increase from new farmers and from new generations of older family farms,” he said.
“I see people who already have family farms and they’re changing the direction of their farm. Some people are coming into organic and certified organic from second careers,” he observed.
“The interest is also there from conventional farmers who are interested in using IPM and fewer chemicals of any kind on their farms, and they’re interested in preserving healthy soils for the longer term.”
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