Sweet-Tart Success

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Johnson Berry farms historic, organic berries

BY JENNIFER CRAIN

sweetTart

 

 

One sunny May afternoon, Jim Johnson points out something he’s never seen before in his raspberry fields. The tops of the canes are bushy with foliage and studded with buds that will flower in a few days, but the bottoms of the canes are almost bare. It’s unusual, but Johnson seems more curious than worried. Forty years of farming have polished away any tendency to fret about factors such as fungus, early frost, or a freak weather event. Still, he’ll keep an eye on the berries, as he has since he was a kid.

When Johnson was nine years old, his parents bought a farmhouse situated on three lush acres in Olympia. Johnson took responsibility for the red raspberries in the garden: three 50-foot rows of established canes. He picked the berries in the summer and sold them at the Olympia Farmers Market and from under a canopy on his front lawn.

 

 

“I didn’t start growing acreage until I was in middle school,” Johnson reports casually, as if an entrepreneurial preteen who plants an acre of raspberries and marionberries is commonplace.

 

 

“Don’t tell the IRS,” he laughs, “but I had a crew—I hired my buddies, and they’d ride their bicycles over and pick berries.” Johnson is an easy conversationalist, but beneath the guy-next-door persona, he’s an accomplished businessman with a knack—and bloodline—for berries. His uncle was the Puyallup Valley farmer George Richter, whose famed berries were prized by chefs at high-end restaurants across the country. By 2004, when a New York Times article mentioned Richter, he was firmly associated with the Tulameen red raspberry, one of many varieties he tested in plant trials during his 50- year farming career.

In 1975, Johnson turned his berry habit into a profession. He established Johnson Berry Farm on a portion of his parents’ original land and an adjacent five acres. He and his wife, Lisa (his girlfriend at the time), planted five types of berries and tended the farm during the day; at night and through the winters, they worked restaurant jobs until the farm became more established.

 

 

Today, Johnson farms land surrounding his parents’ original property, in addition to some leased farmland along the Nisqually River—a total of 35 acres. As many as 18 seasonal workers pick and process the harvest at the height of the season. It’s a village, Johnson says. Many of the pickers have worked his farm every harvest season for more than two decades.

 

 

Johnson Berry Farm is home to 14 types of berries, including some from Johnson’s uncle’s fields. The harvest is a parade of select varieties of strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, and blackberries. But the fruit that makes people catch their breath at the market stands—when he has enough to sell them fresh—are those that rarely make an appearance in the produce aisle: golden raspberries and other lesserknowns, such as a black raspberry–Marionberry cross called a Waldoberry and three hybrids of raspberry and blackberry varieties: boysenberry, tayberry, and the tart loganberry.

Johnson’s berries and jams are iconic products at the Olympia Farmers Market, where the farm has maintained a stall since 1976. Fresh berries are also available at the Tumwater Town Center Farmers’ Market and at the farm’s roadside stand. The farm doesn’t truck fresh berries to Seattle, but its jams are available seven days per week at Pike Place Market.

Johnson Berry Farm was certified organic in 1993, though Johnson says he has used organic practices since 1985. Asked why he transitioned to organic methods, he’s pragmatic. “My well water here is at 28 feet,” he explains. “I didn’t want to poison my own water.”

He tries to keep his prices in line with those of supermarket berries, even though his berries are higher in quality than their oversized competitors. “When you buy berries from us, you’re buying fruit that was picked that day,” he says. “It wasn’t picked green and shipped. I don’t grow for size, I grow for flavor. I could dump a ton of nitrogen on these plants and get huge berries, but they wouldn’t taste good.”

 

 

A lack of conventional additives hasn’t hindered the farm’s production. On the contrary, by the late 1990s, Johnson’s fruit was so abundant that he and Lisa could pack 18 chest freezers full of extra berries. And still, there were more.

 

It was difficult for them to decide what to do with the excess. The smoothie craze had yet to emerge, so frozen fruit sales weren’t as profitable as they are today. The closest cannery was two hours away, near Vancouver, and paid only pennies per pound.

 

“It just wasn’t worth it,” Johnson remembers. “If we had fruit left, we dumped it out in the fields. It was just crazy.”

 

 

In 2000, the Johnsons started making the extra fruit into jam. They sold strawberry, raspberry, and marionberry jams at their existing market stands and rented a table at Pike Place Market. Sales were successful, so they dreamed up new combinations. To support the jam operation, Johnson gained organic certification for his parents’ backyard, where he grows rhubarb and currants and harvests Concord grapes from his father’s 30-year-old vines.

Today, the Johnsons produce an expansive array of 26 flavors, including classic berry jams, chili pepper–laced preserves, and all-fruit spreads. They still make their jams by hand, in single batches.

Johnson’s Tayberry Jam and Raspberry Habanero Jam were named winners in the 2013 Good Food Awards. In 2015, the Tayberry Jam was named a winner for the second time. This year, the farm’s Strawberry Habanero Jam XXX was awarded second place in the Sweet Heat category of the Scovie Awards, a yearly competition for spicy gourmet foods.

If a career can be split into seasons, right now it’s Jim Johnson’s summer, when his hard-won expertise has merged with a winning business formula, well-loved products, and a blush of notoriety. It’s good news for berry fans: There will be many seasons to come.

 

 

Johnson Berry Farmstand
(sales only, no u-pick)
2908 Wiggins Rd SE, Olympia
johnsonberryfarm.com

 

Jennifer Crain writes from her home in Olympia, where she sometimes eats Johnson’s Tayberry Jam with a spoon. Read more of her food stories at jennifercrain.com

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