Steve Johnson  [Photo by Diane Urbani de la Paz/Peninsula Profile]

Steve Johnson [Photo by Diane Urbani de la Paz/Peninsula Profile]

PENINSULA PROFILE: He’s rooted in the community

AGNEW — Steve Johnson is not a big talker. He is a farmer, after all, a man who has made a living from the land since he was a boy in the 1960s, working in the woods with his father, George Johnson.

Both George and Steve could tell the elder Johnson wasn’t well, and that he wouldn’t grow old on his farm.

In 1970, when Steve was just 16, his father died of a heart attack.

Lazy J, George and Eloise Johnson’s ironically named spread near Siebert Creek, had started out as a 20-acre berry farm in 1955. But by the time Steve inherited it, the operation had evolved into a Christmas tree farm, a place where the crop takes seven years or longer to be ready for market.

“We had some trees in the ground,” Steve recalls. He also had a long road ahead.

But the teenager managed to run the farm, finish high school, go to Peninsula College and apply to the University of Washington in Seattle, with thoughts of embarking on a different career.

But “I couldn’t walk away,” he remembers. Steve stayed to build on what his father had begun: The Lazy J Tree Farm, now 85 acres, is a supplier of Christmas trees to lots across the Peninsula, including the Clallam Co-op in Sequim and Swain’s in Port Angeles. Many locals know it too as a place to cut your own tree and, after Christmas, recycle it for free.

Steve became a leader in the sustainable farming community decades ago. Friends of the Fields and the North Olympic Land Trust, which strive to protect farmland across Clallam County, presented him with the Farmer of the Year award back in 2000; that was when the award was just 2 years old, land trust executive director Tom Sanford noted.

And while 60 acres are planted with evergreens — noble, Douglas and grand firs — Steve and his son, Graeme, 28, are growing much more.

The farm store is rich in organic garlic, Gravenstein apples and a color wheel of potatoes: red fingerlings, German yellows, red Nordlands, Austrian crescents and Ozettes. Lazy J also has become known as the place to take yard waste — instead of dumping or burning it — as well as a supplier of organic compost. On, that’s the stuff called “Steve’s secret weapon of mass production” for farmers and gardeners.

As always, Lazy J is on the Oct. 6 Clallam County Farm Tour, which means its fresh produce — along with live music and hayrides — will roll out for public enjoyment a couple of Saturdays from now.

In keeping with the 16th annual tour’s “how-to” theme, Steve will give apple cider-making demonstrations and talk about using compost to make local soils richer. He’ll also have beekeepers on hand to discuss honey processing.

Oh, and Steve will also give a tour of the creekside land he has set aside in perpetuity, as both farmland and wildlife habitat.

Nineteen acres along Siebert Creek are protected by a conservation agreement Steve initiated five years ago. The easement, under the auspices of the North Olympic Land Trust and Friends of the Fields, ensures that the sensitive land will never be turned into a housing tract or other such commercial development.

Oh, and of course he’ll have some live music on farm day: singer Lee Tyler Post from noon till 2 p.m., then a bunch of other musician friends. Music is a major part of Steve’s life, despite one exceedingly bad experience. In elementary school, a teacher lined up the students by quality of singing voice, with the least-developed ones in the front.

Steve was placed in that first row. The teacher stood him there, as if putting a dunce cap emblazoned with “WORST singer” on his head.

That ruined him for a long time, he says.

“I could have done something in music,” Steve believes. But then he might not have embarked on the entirely new pursuit, one that has turned into an indispensable part of his life.

Around age 40, Steve began taking dance lessons. Swing, salsa, tango, waltz — he learned them all. And he practiced, at just about every opportunity.

Today, at 58, Steve is a dancer of equal parts grace and spice, a man who never lacks for a partner. He’s also a teacher, of classes and private lessons in Sequim and Port Angeles.

Last spring, Steve taught a series of dance classes at the Port Angeles Senior & Community Center; he asked for a $5 drop-in fee or $30 for the whole course. He’s in this to promote community, he says, not to make money.

“I don’t really get charging $8 or $10 a class,” Steve says, though there have been times when he paid that kind of money.

But Steve feels those prices could deter some from trying out something new. He knows how hesitant, even intimidated, people can be by that dance floor.

With men, “it’s an ego thing,” Steve says. He understands perfectly, adding that if he went out and tried golf — a sport he’s never gotten into — he would probably do quite poorly.

Steve’s mission with his chosen activity, however, is to promote confidence — among men, women, beginners and beyond. He teaches East Coast swing, country two-step and waltz, all with a zest that’s contagious.

“Dancers have a passion,” he says, adding that moving to music feels a lot like a drug. The more you practice, the more you want to dance.

“When I teach, I say: ‘Whatever you do a lot of, you’re going to be good at,’” Steve adds. In other words, there’s no substitute for getting out there.

The next few months are intense ones at Lazy J, with the potato digging and apple harvest followed by Christmas tree season. Steve and his crew will sell about 6,000 wholesale and you-cut trees between now and the end of December.

Still, farmer Steve knows the value of kicking up one’s heels now and then. So he will host a community dance, with the rock-blues-zydeco band the Delta Rays, next Sunday at the Vern Burton Community Center, 308 W. Fourth St. in Port Angeles. Admission will be $5 for everybody — except Steve’s students, who get in free.

Then it’ll be back to work and more work on the farm, until January when he plans to offer another series of partner dance classes, possibly at the senior center.

Reflecting on his years of growing food, trees and dancers, Steve adds he’s never had a “paycheck job,” a “by-the-hour job.” And to any visitor to Lazy J, it’s clear: This farm isn’t a job. It’s a life.

“I’m pretty connected to the ground,” Steve says in his understated way.

Smiling, he points out something unusual: Here at Lazy J, he’s had the same phone number, 457-5950, ever since he was born. Only the area code has changed, from 206 to 360.

Life isn’t static on the farm, of course. Steve and crew have a new crop in this year: triticale, a grain he hasn’t yet decided how to market yet. To keep an operation vital, after all, a farmer has to bring in something fresh now and then — just as George Johnson did with Christmas trees some 50 years ago.

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