LEGACIES OF OUR LAND 2016
A monthly supplement to The Delmarva Farmer
Johnson family’s versatility echoes down mountains
BEDFORD, Va. — Fruit growing has remained central to Johnson’s Orchards for generations but its versatiliy in how the family grows and sells their products has been a key to their long-term viability.
The farm is owned by Danny and Nancy Johnson and located at the foot of the Peaks of Otter, two points that can be seen from many miles in all directions. Nancy said the family farm traces its beginning to the top of Sharp Top, one of the peaks and has gradually moved down over the generations.
Danny is the youngest child of James Elmo Johnson who purchased the farm from Fleming Carter in July 1918, Nancy said. He is the only one of generation of a large family to stay in the business. She added his grandfather had 22 children from two marriages.
Tomatoes preceded apples and peaches on the farm and at times saved the day when fruit crops failed due to spring freezes and other problems, they said.
The Johnsons currently have more than 200 acres in apples, Danny said. In the 1940s and ’50s the Johnsons had more than 350 acres in apples and peaches of owned and leased orchards.
Tomatoes played a big part in the operation in the 1960s, Nancy said.
She said there were six tomato canneries and she could hear their whistles from across the county on their hillside farm.
At that time, especially when the fruit was frozen out, they planted as many as 35 to 40 acres of tomatoes.
Danny said his father shipped two types of tomatoes, greens and pinks, to Florida for years but the tomato blight that hit in the 1950s ended the Florida shipments.
He recalled that in the 1950s and 60s, Johnson’s Orchards had the only three-story cold storage facility east of the Mississippi River. It was an old ammonia style cooler built on the side of a hill.
Nancy who revealed she had always wanted to be a farmer said the business was only picking, packing and shipping its products when she became part of it.
Danny had milked a small dairy herd for a time and sold the cream. The family has also always had beef cattle.
Nancy said their business is like most farming operations: Someone has to have an off farm job to support the farm.
She named an impressive list of jobs she has held during the 56 years they have been married.
These included teaching school, teaching horseback riding and teaching swimming among others. She also worked for the Census Bureau dealing with agriculture matters.
Change came in the 50s from international influences and the weather. The couple said China started shipping apple juice to the United States at the equivalent of three cents per pound.
Danny said they could not pick apples for three cents so they decided to downsize their operation.
Then Mother Nature threw hailstones into the orchards doing major damage. That year they sold what apples that survived as “Dimple Darlings,” telling customers the dimples made by the hailstones made the apples taste better.
Danny said that they shipped a lot of red and golden delicious apples in the 1970s, mostly to Kroger gorcery stores.
As the demand for uniform sized apples grew, the Johnsons switched to growing the fruit for other packers including some in Michigan in 2000.
As times changed, the Johnsons began following developing trends, according to Nancy.
They had their own grocery and did direct marketing. She served on the state’s direct marketing board.
They also joined the move to value added products by making jams and jellies and marketing from the farmer to the consumer.
Their grandsons Josh and Jordan, began harvesting and taking the goods to farmers’ markets.
Seeing winery signs along roadways inspired them to investigate the wine business.
In 1995 they established Peaks of Otter Winery.
“It’s the tail that wags the dog,” Danny said.
Most folks think grapes when they hear winery, but not Johnsons. They grow most of the fruits used in their 30 different “Fruit of the Farm Wines.”
Fruits and berries are the basis for most of their wines but they do spice things up with a chili pepper wine.
Some of the wines come from using the Johnsons’ ancestrial recipes, Danny added.
Along with bringing the public to their orchard and winery, the Johnsons turned Danny’s grandparents’ house into a vacation destination, calling it Elmo’s Rest.
This attraction offers various vacation packages to give guests a farm experience. Nancy has overseen its creation and operation.
With one of their two sons and two grandsons involved in the farm Danny and Nancy said they feel the farm positioned well to continue and evolve as times change.
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P.O. Box 2026 Easton, MD 21601-8925