Change isn’t always planned, but families who remain flexible and open-minded can see a positive outcome as their business model shifts. While many U-pick and agritainment farms expanded during COVID, the Johnsons cut back.
Jeanne Johnson married into a family that was one of the biggest vendors at the farmers market in Columbia, MO. “The farm was in Mexico, Missouri, and they were doing truck farming and selling at farmers markets,” said Jeanne. “Then we started doing our own market because farmers markets weren’t enough, and we also had a small greenhouse. To support two families, we needed to move to where there was a larger population because agritourism was the thing to do.” The Johnsons found a Belton, MO, farm that fit them well, and its location on the state line would attract customers from both Missouri and Kansas.
When the Johnsons first started farming, they marketed plants in spring and pumpkins in autumn. When the pandemic hit in 2020, the family dropped the spring plant business. “We were in the middle of a huge restructuring of our greenhouse,” said Jeanne. “We were already going to grow just half of what we normally grow, but COVID hit and we said ‘this is a no-brainer – we can’t do half of what we were going to do.’”
They had a greenhouse full of large hanging baskets and plants for spring but were unsure about how to handle the season. “We sent out emails to three hospitals and asked if they would be willing to come pick up a hanging basket for all the work they were doing,” said Jeanne. “That’s how all the hanging baskets went out that year.”
With a two-month greenhouse season, they were going to have to make some quick decisions. They realized it didn’t make sense to offer limited product when people were used to a one-acre greenhouse filled with plants.
Throughout summer 2020, the Johnsons geared up for autumn, not knowing what the season would bring. “We found people wanted to get outside, even though the threat of COVID was still there,” said Jeanne. “We had a great fall season because people wanted to get out, so we took precautions and had sanitation and distancing.”
As the Johnsons finished up the greenhouse project over that winter, COVID resurged. Their goal was to finish that project and be ready for the business they knew would be there in autumn. The wait was worthwhile – there was a 20% increase in business when they opened in August 2021.
With a solid customer base for pumpkin season, the Johnsons established more autumn crops. The first 5,000 apple trees they planted are now in their fourth season. Apples include early selections such as Honeycrisp and Gala, with Pink Lady®, Fuji and Granny Smith later in the season. In another year or two, young Jonathan trees will be bearing fruit. “There was a learning curve,” said Jeanne, describing the addition of apple trees. “Honeycrisp are susceptible to so many issues. Now we’re growing Evercrisp®.” The Johnsons planted 5,000 additional apple trees last year.
Mums are popular among customers, and the Johnsons grow varieties for every taste. “We’re growing 26,000 mums this year,” said Jeanne. “We have one of the best mum programs in the area. This year we’ll have 92 varieties in seven colors and three bloom times. We always test new varieties in small lots first.” Jim Johnson grows outstanding mums every year, and credits his success to soil samples taken throughout the season ensure well-fed, healthy plants that are ready to sell. Jeanne’s goal with mums is to sell out by the end of September because she needs her staff free to handle the pumpkin patch in mid-October.
The Johnsons grow a selection of vegetables and establish a flower patch next to the vegetables to attract bees. “We almost always have a patch of sunflowers even if it’s just a few rows,” said Jeanne. “Now we grow about an acre of sunflowers and four acres of vegetables, including lots of tomatoes and peppers and sweet corn.” Because the farm doesn’t have a climatized retail store, all vegetables are available by U-pick.
This year, Johnson Farms will have a succession of openings, starting in August with mums and apples. “We went to a ticketing system for the farm,” said Jeanne. “It’s less of a drain on the farm internet from constant credit card transactions. It’s all done online – people can purchase produce ahead of time. The only thing we don’t offer online is pumpkins, but I’m thinking about that for this year.”
Johnson Farms has always sold pumpkins by the pound, except for the first year when guests could fill a wheelbarrow for $25. “That was 21 years ago,” said Jeanne. “People overfilled the wagons, dropped pumpkins and made a mess. We tweaked it until we figured out how much per pound we needed, but it’s hard to do online ahead of time.”
Jeanne said another drawback to pre-selling pumpkins online is that people tend to be particular about pumpkins and prefer to select them in person. She’s still fine-tuning the process to determine how to keep lines shorter and eliminate weighing pumpkins at the end of each customer’s trip.
The farm offers season passes that allow people to visit any time without having to pay each time they visit. “We have some families we see coming and know them all by their first name,” said Jeanne. “They can pick fresh produce right off the tree or vine, and kids like to play on the playground.”
Last year, for the farm’s 20th anniversary, the Johnsons offered a deal – a wheelbarrow filled with pumpkins, apples, a mum, sunflowers and vegetables. “People could fill the wheelbarrow for one price,” said Jeanne. “They like to know they’re getting a good value and they loved it.”
As members of NAFDMA (the International Agritourism Association), the Johnsons participate in several agritourism tours each year. Jeanne recalled being on a bus tour during which participants were asked what they planned to add for the next season. Jeanne said, “‘I’m subtracting things and I’m happy.’ Agritourism can really start going places you don’t want to go. The public starts asking for everything and want you to be everything. I don’t want to have big concerts and I don’t want to be outside after six at night.”
Since the farm requires extra employees for the autumn season, Jeanne relies on her extensive managerial experience and tries to determine where employees fit best. “I try to figure out what they’re good at, put them where they’re going to fly and let them soar,” she said. “They’re much happier.” The addition of incentives has helped retain employees through the short season.
“I like a challenge and I don’t mind change,” said Jeanne. “I’m always looking for a better way to do something – we all are. One of the most fun things for me to do is look at where we are each year, try to reduce the labor and keep everyone safe.”
Visit Johnson Farms online at johnsonfarms.net.
by Sally Colby