By Edgar Allen Beem
Photographed by Stacey Cramp
From our March 2016 issue
Gardeners all over the country are already planning what they’re going to plant when the ground thaws, and chances are good that they’re sowing their dreams with the help of a seed catalog from Johnny’s Selected Seeds. More than 1.2 million of the booklets, filled with images of vegetables, fruits, herbs, and flowers in a rainbow of colors, are mailed each year from the central Maine company that Rob Johnston Jr. started in an attic as a 22-year-old in 1973. It’s grown into an international plant breeder and seed retailer with nearly 200 employees and annual sales around $40 million.
“The most important secret of success is to just keep doing it. It’s continuity,” says Johnston. “Every year, we hope we improve on what we do. Selling beans is how we make money to develop more beans.”
Johnston, whose scruffy beard and thick glasses give him the look of a professorial farmer, turned over ownership of the company to his employees a decade ago so he could concentrate on what he likes best — product development. His office in a renovated warehouse looks more like a monk’s cell with a computer, its one window looking out on the patchwork of tilled fields, plastic hoop houses, greenhouses, barns, and sheds that compose the 120-acre research farm in the small town of Albion, where Johnny’s develops high-quality, easy-to-grow vegetable, fruit, and flower seeds.
Indeed, cultivation at Johnny’s is primarily focused on propagation, and it’s something the company does exceptionally well: All-America Selection (AAS), an independent nonprofit organization that tests new crop varieties, has given its coveted AAS Award to 10 vegetable varieties that were developed by Johnny’s through trial selections for high germination rates, disease resistance, and hardiness.
Founded three years after the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association and five years before the Fedco Seeds cooperative in Clinton, Johnny’s Selected Seeds has its roots in the counterculture and back-to-the-land movement of the early 1970s when Johnston was a student at University of Massachusetts/Amherst. There, he and some friends organized the popular Yellow Sun Natural Food Cooperative, and in 1971, he helped start Golden Sheaf Natural Foods Store in Providence, Rhode Island. The following year, while tracking down sources of Daikon radish and Chinese cabbage seeds as a member of communal Erewhon Farm in Alstead, New Hampshire, Johnston became deeply interested in seeds. He started Johnny’s Selected Seeds — named for Johnny Appleseed — in his attic bedroom at Erewhon. In 1974, he moved Johnny’s to his family’s farm in Acton, Massachusetts, and then in 1975, he moved to Maine, first to land in Dixmont loaned to him by friends and then to the farm in Albion.
While Johnny’s does grow some seed for sale — primarily Jerusalem artichokes and a few tomato varieties — most of the seeds that the company packages and sells to consumers are grown for the company in other parts of the country. Whether they’re harvested in Maine or California, however, all of Johnny’s seeds are distinguished by their high germination rates, according to Cheryl Wilson, an operations manager at the Johnny’s Selected Seeds order-fulfillment warehouse in Winslow. “Regardless of where the seeds come from, Johnny’s seeds are expected to meet the customer’s expectations.”
The warehouse is a roadside warren of blue-gray metal buildings, where tons of vegetable, fruit, flower, and herb seeds arrive in bags, pails, and boxes to be inventoried, sorted, tested, filed, and stored until they are ready to be packed in seed packets and shipped to home gardeners and small commercial growers all over the world and even beyond — the astronauts on the International Space Station grew and consumed Johnny’s Outredgeous romaine lettuce during the summer of 2015. Though the company operates one automated packing machine, the vast majority of the seed packets are weighed and hand-packed individually by employees who work with deliberate care.
The complex also houses the quality-control wing, where seeds are tested for performance, such as germination (Johnny’s lettuces, for example, should germinate at rates between 90 and 100 percent compared to the federal standard of 80 percent). Quality-control workers also grow plants in response to customer concerns — like the seeds that were labeled “broccoli” but instead produced cabbages (it was a vendor’s labeling error).
Johnny’s colorful catalogs are produced in still another facility — a long, two-story wooden office building in downtown Fairfield, which also houses the company’s call center and human resources department. About 150 Johnny’s Selected Seeds employees are shareholders in an employee stock ownership plan launched in 2006, and three years ago, the company became 100 percent employee owned.
“It’s like a retirement fund,” says Lainie Kertesz, a sales rep who has worked at Johnny’s for more than 25 years. “It’s a benefit that stays with you until you leave the company. For some of the younger employees who are just starting out, it could make them millionaires.”
It also makes them happier and more productive employees, Kertesz says. “It’s huge. It means you’re working for yourself. We elect the board of directors, and there would be a mandatory vote if anyone ever offered to buy Johnny’s.”
Johnny’s owner-employees, many of whom are farmers and gardeners themselves, also buy into the company’s mission of “helping families, friends, and communities to feed one another by providing superior seeds, tools, information, and service.”
“The original mission of Johnny’s has not changed over the years,” says Kertesz. “It’s always fit perfectly. It’s about feeding people and eating locally. Now that’s more acceptable. It’s not questioned. It just is.”
Which brings us back to Rob Johnston’s belief in continuity as the key to Johnny’s success. “There is a second back-to-the-land movement in this country,” Johnston says. “In the 1970s, there was a social and political focus. Today, there is not as much of a countercultural motivation; it’s more of an artisan approach than an industrial approach to food. People want to eat local. We’ve had that priority as long as we’ve been in business. That’s the dream.”