Agnew pair named land trust's Farmer of the Year

By Jeremy Schwartz
Peninsula Daily News

AGNEW — With Johnston Farms not too far from her home, Julie Grattan-Jacobsen — a member of the North Olympic Land Trust's Farmer of the Year Award committee — decided it would be best to tell the owners they had won the 2012 award herself.

“I rode my bike over and told them two weeks ago,” Grattan-Jacobsen said.

Christie Johnston, co-owner with husband, Kelly, of Johnston Farms off Heuhslein Road in Agnew, said she and her husband were surprised but pleased to learn they had won.

It will bring a little extra recognition to the farm, she said.

“It's a big plus,” Christie Johnston said with a smile.

The Farmer of the Year Award has honored a different North Olympic Peninsula farmer each year since 1999, said Tom Sanford, land trust executive director.

The award comes with free tickets to the 13th Annual 100-mile Friends of the Fields Harvest Dinner, scheduled from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. Sept. 22 at Sunland Golf & Country Club, 109 Hilltop Drive, in Sequim.

Tickets for the dinner — showcasing food grown within a 100-mile radius — are $75 until Monday and are $85 after that.

Advance tickets are available at www.NorthOlympicLandTrust.com or at the office at 104 N. Laurel St., Suite 104, in Port Angeles.

No tickets will be sold at the door.

Though the recognition is a great honor, Christie Johnston said neither she nor her husband did anything special to win this year's award.

She said local farmers are never really in competition with one another, citing numerous times she has referred potential customers to fellow Port Angeles Farmers Market vendors when they ask for a type of produce she doesn't have.

“We help each other out,” Johnston said.

Grattan-Jacobsen said she seconded a recommendation from fellow award committee member Patty McMannus-Huber to honor the Johnstons this year, and the rest of the committee supported the move 100 percent.

Grattan-Jacobsen said the couple was chosen for the diverse amount of produce — including melons, celery, carrots and myriad peppers — the Johnstons fit on their relatively small plot of land.

“They're just very intense and totally organic and quite a model for what could be done on such a small parcel of land,” Grattan-Jacobsen said.

“They're wonderful, wonderful souls.”

The Johnstons started with 4,000 square feet of farmable land with four old apple trees in 2000.

Now with 7.5 acres of land, or just more than 81 times more square feet, the Johnstons specialize in squeezing as much produce out of their farm as possible.

Christie Johnston said their land's raised bed farming, where the crops sit in raised rows three to four inches above the ground, allows the plants to establish stronger root systems and makes hand-picking crops slightly easier.

However, the Johnstons' chosen method of hand-harvesting does mean more labor-intensive work, especially since the couple does not use any large harvesting machinery.

Kelly Johnston came from a family with a strong horticulture background, and, early in their marriage, regularly helped in his grandmother's garden until the couple decided to buy their own space, his wife said.

The Agnew property was the perfect spot because of its access to water and flat, farmable land, she said.

“It was nice to do our own thing,” Christie Johnston said.

With her husband taking the lead early in the hands-on side, she said her passion is interacting with people and telling them about her farm; especially at the Port Angeles Farmers Market.

She said few things please her more than seeing customers taking home produce that they've bought from her.

“It's rewarding,” Christie Johnston said. “It gives me joy.”

Finding enough hands to make quick work of the harvesting is one of the major challenges, she said.

She said her farm is connected with a few Workers on Organic Farms programs, but regularly finds it challenging to train and get the 20-somethings that comprise that crowd to stay longer than a month or so.

“You have to be tenacious to be a farmer,” she said.

Through the numerous challenges inherent in her chosen field, she said her regular joy is feeding members of her community produce from her land; and maybe teaching a little something about where food comes from, too.

“We want to serve our community and give them good, healthy food,” Christie Johnston said.

“It's important to know how to grow food.”

For more information, see the land trust website, stop into the office or phone 360-417-1815.



Reporter Jeremy Schwartz can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 5074, or at jschwartz@peninsuladailynews.com.

Last modified: September 06. 2012 6:02PM
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