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80 Years in Agriculture – Two Brothers Spill the Dirt

You can learn a lot about farming from the Johnsons.

I recently sat down for an interview on the front porch of my parents’ farmhouse just south of the Mason Dixon line, near Elkton, Maryland, with my father, Phil Johnson, 80, and his brother Doug, 83, to talk about the changes in agriculture over their lifetimes.

Phil owns Walnut Springs Fruit Farm and Doug is retired from the dairy equipment business.

What is the biggest change you’ve seen with farming in your lifetime?

Doug: There has been a phenomenal amount of conservation changes. Between here and the pond, there used to be a washout you could hide a tractor in. It was a good 10 feet deep.

Phil: That gully was the original road from the late 1800s. It went up over the hill toward Oxford. In 1917, every acre on this farm was plowed up. That’s how all the gullies got here. We got them all filled in and contoured.

I first learned about conservation when I won a trip to Sioux City, Iowa, in 1955 as the 4-H conservationist of the year for Maryland. Part of the trip out there was to show us how the Loess soils of northwest Iowa were erodible. They took us out on a farm and showed us a 30-foot-deep gully where the soil was the same at the top as it was at the bottom. You very quickly learned that there is a value in retaining your soil. That area of Iowa is all windblown soil. It was quite eye-opening.

When I started farming, there wasn’t too much concern about conservation, but I knew the problems with the soil on this farm. I made it a point the first year or two to work on all the waterways. Herb Ewing, the conservationist in Elkton, worked with me to figure out how I could save the soil. I had decided to go into strawberries commercially, and I think we did a pretty good job of laying out the terraces and waterways. We haven’t had to change much over the years.

Is conservation especially important because you farm in the Chesapeake Bay watershed?

Phil: This area is in the biggest estuary in the U.S. The Chesapeake Bay drains more ground than any other area in this country. We learned a good lesson in 1972 when Hurricane Agnes came through. We lost the crab population, the eels, the shad. We saw right quick what can happen if you don’t have certain conservation practices. Most of those animals lived on or in eelgrass, a very fine grass that grows in shallow water and requires sunlight. We used to go hunting and fishing on the Elk River where the eelgrass was so thick that you couldn’t run an outboard through it unless you took a scythe to cut it off so you had a path. After Agnes, the eelgrass got completely covered up with silt. That’s what killed the crabs and all the other seafood. It’s been many, many years getting back to the point where the flats of the Chesapeake Bay are now covered with eelgrass.

We have to help clean it up. Even though it’s a hassle to file all the papers for nutrient management, it is necessary. We won’t be able to 100% correct all the problems until Pennsylvania and New York go along with it. As long as they are not doing their share, we will still have nutrient-management problems coming down the Susquehanna River.

You both grew up on a turkey farm near Nottingham, Pennsylvania. What was that like?

Doug: In the 1940s, the turkeys were in fenced-in outdoor lots. We had a brooder house for starting baby turkeys.

Phil: When our friend Lou Neyman was in high school, he was supposed to watch the turkeys in the lot. A neighbor called his mother and said an awful bunch of noise was coming from the pen and asked if Lou was over there. He had fallen asleep in one of the little portable buildings. The dogs had gotten into the turkeys.

We marketed the turkeys direct to customers on the farm. Dad built a processing room and walk-in freezer that was state-of-the-art in 1950. (Their father, Warren Johnson, shown below center with President Truman, was president of the National Turkey Federation in 1950.)

Warren Johnson turkey

Why didn’t you raise turkeys with your dad after college?

Doug: The farm couldn’t take much more participation by that time.

Phil: Dad made most of his money in the turkey business in the 10 years after World War II. After that, it took volumes and volumes of turkeys, and you sold them to a processing plant. Dad always wanted to sell everything direct to the consumer. By 1953, the profits were less.

For one thing, we lost the feather market. Feathers were used in millinery products (hats) for women. They were very marketable and, in the 1940s, were high dollar. The feather merchants out of New York City would fight to see who got down here to get the bagged feathers we had for them. We hand-pulled the feathers. They were nice and fluffy.

Besides the turkeys, what else do you remember about the farm?

Doug: Everyone helped bale hay. We backed the stationary baler in the barn, turned the tractor around, and hooked it up to a belt that powered the baler. Four men worked at that job. Every bale that came out of the back was weighed, and a small wooden tag was slipped under the wire with the weight. They weighed from 120 to 130 pounds each and were tied with three wires.

Phil: We filled the 12×40-foot Marietta silo around Memorial Day with grass. We had a Papec engine-driven direct chopper with a cutter head. We never windrowed anything, just direct-cut it. The self-unloading wagons had a false end gate. There was a drum with cables on it that pulled the front of the wagon back, and a blower to blow it in the silo. We forked it out in the wintertime for the cows along with the hay. Dad bought a herd of Angus cattle in 1950. It was something to keep the hired help busy when they weren’t working with the turkeys. Doug and I both had Angus steers from Dad’s herd in 4-H club. 

When I started renting this farm from him, it was 100 acres tillable. It was half alfalfa and half corn. We picked the corn and put in the double crib with a self-propelled Massey picker. In the wintertime, we shelled all that ear corn with a John Deere sheller, shoveling it out into the sheller.

Dad was always a firm believer in feeding free-choice shelled corn and oats. He bought the oats in 100-pound bags. They were western oats, good heavy, clean oats. When he built the restaurant (warrensstation.com, Fenwick Island, Delaware), he left Niven (farm employee) and me here to take care of the turkeys. The first thing we did was put a wooden feed bin in the feed room where we stored all the bagged feed. We bought a complete ration from Eastern States and eliminated the corn and oats. After that, it was always a complete ration that we fed with a pull-type feed cart with an auger on the back.

Doug: Dad’s first tractor was a Fordson with dual wheels, but it was a horrible thing to operate, so he still used mules. He got an F20 in 1938, and that is when the mules went.

Doug, why did you end up working in the dairy industry?

Doug: Starting at age 11, I went to the Burts’ and milked their cows each evening except Sunday. They had 10 Jerseys. That was for $2.50 a week. I did that until I was 14, and then I did the same for the Barretts on their Holstein farm. They also had 10 cows. I was operating the milking machines.

After college, I was working for the farm co-op Grange League Federation, which later became Agway. They had taken on a milking machine line to sell. I was the only one dumb enough to say that I had milked a cow. In that whole organization, I know some of those other guys had milked a cow, too. That was in 1958. I became the milking machine man and physically put the machines in the back of the truck and sold them to the people who still were hand milking. You might have thought you turned the light switch on when you let those guys get an extra bit of time.

Two years later, a competing company approached me to be an independent agent for them. I moved to western New York, the best place in the dairy industry as far as efficiency. We had snowdrifts 18 feet high and they pushed through those snowdrifts to market the milk. Milk tanks were small, and bulk milk was being handled by a straight truck, not a trailer, that came to the farm every other day and picked up the milk.

A few years later, I got tired of snow and moved to Florida. The efficiency of dairy farms in Florida compared with New York was absolutely horrible because they were getting paid so much for their milk. They didn’t have to be good. When it came to milking cows, they always had hired help. In Florida, 400 cows produced the same amount of milk as 100 cows in New York, and yet they had four times as much equipment.

I should mention a unique area in the dairy industry called Lower Marion, which was everything within 80 miles of Philadelphia. They had their own milk inspector and were paid $6/cwt for milk when New York farmers were paid $3.80/cwt. The New York dairy farmers were phenomenally more productive per unit. I always admired them for their efficiency in a tough market. There was another market around Washington D.C., that also had a special situation, but it wasn’t as lopsided. There was a farmer revolt in 1970 that led to the downfall of the Lower Marion hierarchy. It was good for the whole dairy industry because the area became much more efficient.

What lessons did you learn in the ag equipment business?

Doug: I remember going to a conference where the speaker said, “Price for the value received for the end product, not the cost to make it. If you are marketing a product for $1.05 and it costs you $1.00 to build it, you better change your thinking.” That was significant to me.

I didn’t care what name the equipment had, as long as it made money. Some sold much better than others, but we learned from those that weren’t good. Everything we sold was along the needs of a dairyman: manure pumps, liquid manure equipment, portable feeding equipment, and milking machines. Not all of them were winners and some were big losers, but in the process, we learned what worked and what didn’t work.

We sold bedding choppers like they were going out of style for three years, and all of a sudden the market stopped. I couldn’t understand why. Later, I realized that everybody who wanted one had one. I had already sold it to them. There was no more market for that particular product. So we got another product and another product.

We were always dealing with the progressive customers; we weren’t dealing with the poorest customers. It was easier for me to move to selling in another area if I had saturated one area. We often got into things not by design, but by accident.

Not very many names have survived in farm equipment. John Deere is about the only one that has survived in its same parentage. John Deere created customer loyalty unexcelled. Nobody else has been able to do that.

I have a nephew and a grandson selling dairy equipment today.

Dad, why did you get in the pig business for 40 years?

Phil Johnson pigs

Phil: Mum (Jane Johnson) always had pigs for spending money. Dad had her on an allowance to buy food and so on, but she always kept a few pigs for spending money. Down by the garden she had a shed for the pigs. With the pig money and various other projects, she was eventually able to buy a cottage at Fenwick Island.

When I was in the 10th grade, I bought a Hampshire sow, bred her, and farrowed out a litter.

Why did you decide to grow pick-your-own strawberries?

Phil: The first year after we bought this farm, we grew tomatoes. That was before I expanded the hog operation. When you have mortgages to pay, you have to be proactive.

The first year I had the strawberries, I had to steal my customers from somebody else. We had 4 acres, and I did a pretty good job of taking care of them. The biggest difference between our fields and other farms was we kept the weeds out of them. One woman also pointed out that we didn’t have snakes. We assigned rows. When people came and saw how we were running it, they came back even though we were charging almost 50% more than other farms. We soon learned that price was not always the factor in why people come to pick.

How has the rural infrastructure changed here?

Phil: Growing up, the only paved road around here went by old man Duncan’s house, because he was a county commissioner. Each county commissioner got a certain amount of money for roads, and he spent all that money to pave from Nellie’s Corner to the Pennsylvania line in 1928.

When we were going to school, Blue Ball Road was dirt. The road to Leeds was dirt. I remember Mum getting stuck with the 1936 Ford in the middle of the road going to a church service at Leeds. Pennsylvania had township roads as well as state roads. Elk township was the poorest in our county, so not much was done with our roads. Maryland had county roads and state roads, and they were quicker to fix and pave here than in Pennsylvania.

The Amish have moved down into Maryland now. What do you think about that?

Phil: When we were growing up, the Amish weren’t around here whatsoever. It was an oddity. If you saw an Amish buggy, you really looked at it. That changed with the price of land. When southern Lancaster County got up to the $15,000- to $20,000-per-acre price, the Amish decided it was time to move somewhere else. They started buying up farms down here at $10,000 an acre, which we thought was one heck of a price, but now that’s the given price.

Any of the Amish who come into Maryland right quick realize that they have to have considerable investment in liquid manure tanks in order to meet our code; in Pennsylvania they are not concerned about that. They are very quick to adapt. If you sell hay to them, they will send their nutritionist to check the crop while it is still growing in the field. They are watching all the minute little details so they can pay for those $10,000-per-acre farms.

You both went to school in Maryland, even though you lived in Pennsylvania. Why?

Doug: Because our mama didn’t think we should be in a one-room school in Pennsylvania.

Phil: She paid $60 apiece each year for us to go to Calvert in Maryland. Pennsylvania had township schools. We started in a one-room school and then we advanced to a two-room school. When I couldn’t read getting out of the third grade, she decided that was it.

Doug: We did luck out at Calvert. (At that time, Calvert school went through ninth grade, and then students went to Rising Sun High School.)

Phil: Yep, we had the most wonderful teachers. Still today, Calvert is the top elementary school in the county. Calvert was the forerunner in the state of Maryland in agricultural education.

Doug: One thing significant in my ag background was the Calvert 4-H club. It was phenomenal what they did. They took us to the state fair and we had to judge dairy cattle with every bit of finesse that there was. I remember that vividly, how accurate we were and how much competition there was.

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