Well Grounded

Since age 12, this transplant has been rooted in Vermont soil

by Will Lindner

petes-greens0815Pete Johnson’s childhood love of gardening grew into a lifetime career as the founder and owner of Pete’s Greens, a certified organic, four-season farm growing vegetables in Craftsbury.

Farming is not a vocation for the risk-averse. Spring planting season can be inhospitably cold or wet, summer might be dry, harvests may be carried away by a flood. Equipment could break, or economies could tank, taking crop prices with them. Barns could burn,

Pete Johnson, the owner of Pete’s Greens in Craftsbury — which, since he started farming in 1997, has become one of Vermont’s most productive organic vegetable operations and an anchor for the locavore movement — knows plenty about risks. He has risked and been rewarded for pursuing a somewhat unlikely vision: nursing abundant harvests from a somewhat hostile Northeast Kingdom climate.

He has also experienced the stunning sense of loss, a moment’s (but just a moment’s) immobility when a critical asset vanishes overnight. This was the 4 a.m., January 12, 2011, fire that consumed his barn and everything in it: the vegetable-washing and -processing tanks, the coolers and freezers, tractors, a quarter-of-a-million dollars’ worth of meats and produce ready for market. The barn was close enough to his house that Johnson was alerted by the orange glow dancing upon the bedroom walls; it would have taken his house, too, he believes, were it not protected by aluminum siding.

Risks, Johnson knows, come with the territory. And on balance they have brought him far greater rewards than setbacks.

Yet to this day he is humbled by the risks his parents took in bringing their family to Vermont in 1984. The family — Richard and Nancy Johnson, Pete (the oldest, 12 at the time) and his brother, Andrew, and sisters, Anners and Danika — had been living in suburban Los Angeles, but his mother, a Minnesotan, longed for a life touched by seasons. Richard, a teacher, was easily employable, so they moved to northern California, then to a coastal island in Washington state. But Nancy really got her wish for seasons when her husband scored a temporary job at North Country School in Newport, Vermont.

“It was just a one-year position,” Johnson recalls. “They had four kids and no financial security. They took risks on a level you don’t see people doing.”

Those risks paid off abundantly.

“We loved it here,” he says. “We loved the landscape, the size of Vermont; we took up skiing.”

In time, Richard got a teaching job in Hardwick, and the family settled in in Greensboro, where Richard built a home and Pete, still an adolescent, planted a pumpkin patch.

“I’d been interested in trying it,” he recalls, “and my mom said, ‘Why don’t you just go do it?’”

He hasn’t stopped growing things since, certainly not at Middlebury College, where, he is convinced, his unconventional background (home-schooled, before attending the skiing-oriented Burke Mountain Academy for his junior and senior years) enhanced his appeal to the admissions department as a “diversity” applicant. He majored in environmental studies, with a self-created focus on sustainable agriculture.

“They were very flexible,” says Johnson. “All through college I was dabbling in growing stuff. I built a solar greenhouse on campus for my senior thesis.”

Degree in hand, he headed right back to Craftsbury in 1997 to grow more stuff. There was never any doubt about what he wanted to do, although his original vision turned out to be a little haywire. He started with baby greens, and planned to nurse them through fall, winter, and spring, giving himself the summers off. It was an interesting marketing idea — “I was going to hit the seasons nobody else was hitting” — but not destined for success; he soon settled into the conventional agricultural calendar, favoring spring, summer, and fall.

Except that as Pete’s Greens flourished, it became fully engaged in winter, too.

“The majority of our work goes into growing storage crops — carrots, beets, and potatoes,” he says. “While we have a lot of greenhouses, they are surpassed by our storage stuff, such that we do almost as much business in the winter as in summer.”

In the early years Johnson enlarged his tillage by “carving more land out of the woods,” as he puts it, until he scored a huge break in 2003 with the opportunity to purchase a 190-acre former dairy owned by neighbors Richard and Valerie Morrison.

“It’s a real honor to be able to buy a farm and take over the land someone else has worked,” he says. It was also 700 feet lower in elevation — a micro-climate change noticeably for the better — and offered a level 35-acre field perfect for his operation.

Johnson steadily increased his presence in the CSA (community-supported agriculture) and farmers’ market avenues that are staples, along with food co-ops, of the locavore food movement. He was an early practitioner of partnering with other like-minded agriculturalists — modest businesses growing organic fruits and vegetables, humane meat producers (most commonly beef, pork, chicken, and lamb) — to carry more choices, to more places, for customers yearning to eat local.

This was a savvy expansion of the earliest CSA model, in which members who purchased shares in the farm’s production picked up their portion at the farm gate or perhaps received delivery at home. The broader concept now has Pete’s Greens circulating to some 25 CSA delivery sites during the week, primarily in northern and central Vermont. (The company also has retail facilities in Craftsbury and Waterbury, and participates in weekly farmers’ markets.)

David Robb, proprietor with his wife, Lila Bennett, of Tangletown Farm in West Glover, wholesales eggs and chicken parts to Pete’s Greens.

“The volume he can buy is large,” Robb says. “Our eggs are featured in his CSA, and that’s 250 to 350 dozen eggs every other week, and a lot of people seeing our products that otherwise would not. He has a good name and it’s good to be associated with him.” The exposure in Chittenden County, where Johnson has more than a dozen CSA delivery sites, is particularly welcome to Robb.

But Tangletown is a customer, too, renting space in Pete’s Greens’ massive freezers in Craftsbury. “We store beef and chicken there by the pallet,” says Robb.

That’s why the locavore community — both producers and customers — reacted almost instinctively when Johnson’s underinsured barn and its contents burned away in January 2011.

“It wasn’t just Pete who was affected,” explains Robin McDermott, who runs a business training and performance company (Quality Training Portal) in Waitsfield. “There were so many other farmers who had substantial business with him that came to a screeching halt. People knew it was important to get him up and running.”

McDermott and associate Nancy Baron immediately organized an online auction, hoping to raise $20,000. In the first week they raised $65,000. Eventually, the fundraising tally reached $165,000, and business development programs extended some $600,000 or so in loans and grants.

Says McDermott, “It demonstrated what people thought of Pete. He’s a real leader in the Vermont agricultural community. He provides a huge amount of food throughout Vermont, and he’s always willing to share and help others.”

Johnson didn’t pause to grieve. With the expertise of staff members and allies, by midsummer he had replaced the old dairy barn with a 16,000-square-foot building well-equipped to process and store the growing volume of food that he and his associates are producing. Solar power is on the horizon for it.

Another creation was perhaps even more important. “The incredible outpouring of support we received was super-appreciated,” he says, “but it would have been too much, for us to keep all that money. So we began to repay it into a fund.”

Working with McDermott and Baron, Johnson used these “repayments” to create a revolving loan fund for other farmers in need. The concept took on sudden urgency when Tropical Storm Irene struck on Aug. 28 that same year. Within three weeks the newly established Vermont Farm Fund wrote its first check. It has now extended more than $450,000 in loans to 35 Vermont farmers.

With some 28 employees, three farm sites in production, and other lands under lease, Pete’s Greens is a diverse and demanding business. In 2013 it became the first farm awarded recognition as the Small Business of the Year. A proficient multi-tasker, with iPhone ever at hand, Johnson has enormous organizational responsibilities.

Yet he considers himself, first and foremost, a farmer.

“The staff here is awesome,” he says, praising his construction, mechanical, and financial personnel whose abilities allow him to focus on fields and crops and growing techniques. He is, in fact, consumed with the challenges and rewards of farming, venturing off frequently to Quebec with his wife, Eloise Girard — a bird biologist from Quebec (they were married in 2014) — and 9-month-old daughter, Beatrice, not only for biking and camping but to visit farms there. With friends and fellow growers he travels to Europe — Holland, Belgium, and Italy — for the same purpose.

“What you gain from a week of doing that is huge,” he says. “My focus as an organic farmer is on how to work with soils and rotations to make the plants happy and healthy. We grow, like, 40 different crops. To get good at all of those …?”

He holds his hands out, palms up, and says, “When I’m 75 I’ll still be learning.” •