CENTURIA — Chris Johnson is getting anxious.
The calendar may indicate that it’s spring, but green grass still seems like a long ways off on his small Polk County farm.
Winter’s apparent refusal to go away is interfering with this beginning farmer’s plans, which include expanding his herds of beef cattle and pigs and turning them, along with the chickens, loose on fresh pasture.
After successfully scaling some hurdles in their first couple of years of farming, Johnson, 32, and his wife, Tamara, 31, are excited about the year ahead.
“Not quitting is probably the hardest thing,” Chris said of starting a farm from scratch, but “I’m glad we didn’t.”
The Johnsons, who own Johnson Family Pastures just south of Centuria, see promising times ahead for their 10-acre farm, where they focus on preserving heritage livestock breeds, using perennial and natural feed sources, using regenerative pasture management, and producing food free of antibiotics and added hormones.
The couple markets pork, chicken, eggs, vegetables and, most recently, grass-fed beef to customers both locally and in the nearby Twin Cities.
Farming is a career path that neither Chris, a Fond du Lac native, nor Tamara, who grew up in Minneapolis, had expected to follow.
The outdoors-loving couple met at UW-Stevens Point. Chris was halfway through a Ph.D. program in ecological research at UW-Madison when he quit to farm.
“I found myself destined to a windowless office in front of a computer,” he said.
They got their feet wet farming in 2014 through a partnership near Oconomowoc, where Tamara also worked as an environmental educator. After a couple years, a better opportunity presented itself on a small property Tamara’s family had recently added to their u-pick apple orchard, Baker Orchard.
Because of the family roots, “this is a good fit for us,” she said.
“Her family is a huge help,” Chris added.
They and their young son lived with Tamara’s grandfather for several months until their old farmhouse was livable.
But turning the rundown homestead, which had been abandoned and rented out for decades, into a working farm wasn’t easy. First, the barn had to be gutted and cleaned.
“The barn was packed with junk,” Chris said. “For the last 20 years, it was known as the dumping ground.”
A first-generation farmer, Chris has done what he can to set himself up for success, scouring books and other publications on agriculture, attending conferences and reaching out to local experts.
“You can’t be shy,” he said.
While he had a solid base of scientific knowledge, he lacked business sense, he said. “The word ‘equity’ was honestly a new word for me.”
The Johnsons started out four years ago with less than $10,000, no equipment, no land and no preconceived notions about farming, which Tamara sees as an advantage.
“We could approach it with an open mind,” she said.
Because they offer the quickest turnaround and require less land than cattle, the Johnsons started by raising chickens for meat and eggs, as well as pigs and less than a quarter-acre of vegetables.
Last year, they added about 10 head of cattle — mostly Jerseys — overwintering five. They also kept 10 pigs and 150 layers in the barn through this past winter.
“Winter shelter limits our production right now,” Chris said, because they prefer not to raise stock outside in the winter, although they do have outside access.
First, find buyers
Chris said their goal all along has been to get their market in place, then follow up with more production, and that strategy has worked well.
The biggest challenge for young farmers, especially direct marketers, he said, is establishing a scale that makes sense.
“You can’t buy 100 hogs and expect to sell them,” he said. “We’re taking it slow and making sure marketing is ahead of production, then you don’t have $20,000 invested in a giant pile of pork you can’t sell.”
Running out of product has been an ongoing dilemma for the Johnsons, but Chris said they wanted to make sure their market was in place before anything else.
“Getting the economy of scale is key,” he said. “We’re at max capacity on this property. Not having enough scale has been a problem.”
Pastured pork, sold by the half or whole hog, has been one of their top sellers, and they can’t keep up with demand.
The Johnsons, who graze as much of the farm as they can, are working to remedy that. They recently won a grant from Lakewinds Food Co-op in Minneapolis that will help expand their pig pasture by 3 acres on another property.
“They root up 10 to 20 percent of the paddock of perennial forages, then I come in with annual seeds after they leave. By the time they come back around, it’s like a salad bar,” Chris said.
While they have been running 25 pigs in the summer, this year they hope to have about 70 — mostly heritage breeds such as Large Black, Red Wattle and Berkshire. Heritage breeds of chickens also are raised.
Chris said they likely will begin farrowing pigs again in the future due to difficulty finding a consistent source of feeder pigs.
As they also work to increase their grass-fed beef supply, the Johnsons bought about a dozen Angus steers this spring. They hope to eventually butcher 20 to 40 head per year.
Two chicken tractors, or “egg-mobiles,” run behind the cattle. Pigs are pastured separately.
With a limited land base, the Johnsons have entered into a five-year lease to rotationally graze cattle on 80 acres owned by someone else. Cattle will go there in the spring and come back to the Johnson farm in the fall.
The Johnsons don’t see their small acreage as a limiting factor and hope to enter into contract grazing agreements with other landowners.
“We’re better positioned this spring to take advantage of new pieces of land,” Chris said, adding that they “barely broke even” this past tax year. “Every enterprise we have is profitable on its own, but ... production in 2017 just covered our overhead.
“Going forward, we’ll be at a scale to take a living draw,” he said.
While they often go hand in hand, “owning a farm and farming are two different things,” he said. “You can lease and rent land. You don’t have to own a farm to farm.”
Tamara said it’s important for landowners and livestock owners involved in a contract grazing agreement to talk through all the “what-ifs” and keep communication lines open. Twice a year, the Johnsons meet with Tamara’s family to review their agreement.
They plan to keep renting the farmhouse for another couple of years until their farm is profitable enough that they can afford to buy a larger farm.
“We wanted the business to pay for a purchase of a farm,” Chris said.
Next, scale up
With growth in mind, the Johnsons plan to double the size of their garden this year, focusing on vegetables that “fill in the gaps” or sell out quickly at farmers’ markets, which also are their first channel of choice for meat sales. Half of their meat is sold by the cut at farmers’ markets.
Along with on-farm sales, deliveries and drop points, they participate in twice-monthly indoor markets through the winter and twice-weekly outdoor markets in the summer in the Twin Cities. They also set up a booth at Baker Orchard in the fall.
Tamara handles advertising, marketing and sales. Word of mouth is their biggest selling point.
“She outsells my production,” Chris said.
“Our loyal customers are huge for us,” Tamara said.
Via the farm’s website, customers can fill out a form so their purchases are packaged and ready for pick-up when they arrive at the farm. About 10 to 20 people stop in at the farm each week, but through improved signage, the Johnsons hope to further capitalize on their location along a heavily traveled tourist route.
“Part of our success comes from where this property is located,” Chris said.
In an effort to gain the highest price point, he said, they never have sold anything wholesale, but that likely will need to happen eventually.
As new farmers, mistakes come with the territory, and the Johnsons admit they’ve made their share the past few years.
With two young children — Henry, 3, and Daisy, 1 — and juggling seasonal work at the orchard and Tamara’s substitute teaching schedule, in addition to their burgeoning farm enterprise, the Johnsons learned the hard way last year that some daycare is essential, both to sanity and getting things done.
“We had no time,” Chris said.
Now, with more experience under his belt, he said, “avoiding disasters is my main goal.”
Despite the ups and downs of starting a farm, the Johnsons say they have no regrets about going into agriculture, are proud of how far they’ve come and wouldn’t change a thing, even the missteps.
“We’ve done well with what we’ve had to work with,” Chris said.
Johnson Family Pastures is just south of Centuria at 1206 State Highway 35. For more information, call Chris at 920-960-4475, email email@example.com or visit www.johnsonfamilypastures.org.