Aaron Johnson is an organic producer south of Madison, South Dakota in Orland Township. He’s been farming since 2009 and is a third generation farmer. He farms on land that has been in the family since 1939. He sits outside his home on a hot September day with his wife Kirstin. His 89 year old father drives up and down a soybean field on a green John Deere tractor just across the street.
“I produce corn and soybeans, oats and alfalfa and stock cattle. Those are basically my five enterprises. Out of 560 acres, there’s about 400 acres of tillable land and 83 acres of pasture. I’m able to farm and raise cattle with my cousins," said Aaron.
The Johnson Farm was built on the affinity for the land and the bond between family. “Working with my family is one of the best blessings I could think of. Of course we’re always gonna have some issues here and there, but those are just minor compared to what it’s like to work with family. We’re all in here for the greater good. And we look out for each other.”
Aaron gets choked up when he talks about the story behind the Johnson Family Farm and their transition to organic farming.
"We were the laughing stock of the county, this was before I was even born so I can’t imagine what they went through. Having to put up with being an outcast like that...and then now where we are today. I feel very fortunate."
Switching from conventional to organic farming practices was challenging at first, but over time the Johnsons found their footing. “We’ve taken great advantage of using crop rotation to keep our fields very clean compared to any other operation. I feel our yields, and the quality of our grain, are second to none.”
Today the biggest challenge that the Johnsons face is maintaining their organic status. Inadvertent spraying of conventional crops can threaten the status of the organic crops should the Johnson fields be contaminated. “Whether they spray their own crops or they have an applicator do it for them -- it’s not intentional by any means,” said Aaron on spraying in the area. Luckily, the Johnsons are mostly surrounded by extended family who are also organic producers.
Aaron and his family have found great success in using a distributor, NF Organics, to market and spread their product. “They are great, they take a small commission but they line up all the buyers and they line up the trucking. If there was a buyer that couldn’t pay us for some reason or another, NF Organics has lawyers on retainer. They also have money set aside to pay the farmer. So there’s a lot of comfort knowing that when a load of grain leaves I’m going to get paid,” said Aaron.
The Johnson family tends to their crops closely. “On our farm every 60 inches there’s a human footprint on our row crops. We take very good care of controlling weeds. And having that close connection to the land like that, I think sets us apart from many others.”
“I think it’s quite nice to be able to come home and not have to worry about chemicals on you. My three-year-old son loves to ride with dad and I don’t have to worry about him. The worst thing that we deal with out here is diesel fuel. So that’s really nice to be able to go to work and come home like that. I’m pretty fortunate.”
Part of the farm’s success is also due to the help of Dakota Rural Action. “We joined in 2009, actually before I came back to the family farm. My cousin Charlie Johnson introduced me to Dakota Rural Action.”
Aaron is thankful for the Farm Beginnings course provided by Dakota Rural Action for educating him on farm planning. “I took a farm beginning class with them actually called “Farm Beginnings.” It was a real eye opening experience for me and my future wife at the time. It created a lot of conversation and helped us come up with a lot of questions we would never have come up with. We learned what to expect out of the family farm and what we expect out of each other. And what we can anticipate happening in the future. We learned how to deal with the day to day, season to season, year to year, changes in the farm.”
Today Aaron helps teach some of the courses in the Farm Beginnings program. “I actually help teach a financial planning 201. I get to talk to the students about a more in-depth financial analysis mainly, and what bankers are looking for if they need to secure any loans through an outside lender. There’s a lot of unknowns in that realm and so there really isn’t one particular question that comes up. They have a lot of questions, they just don’t know how to ask them.”
In the course new farmers learn business strategies, financial planning and information that’s needed to start farming and making a life out of it.
“Farming is my calling and I feel very fortunate to have the opportunities that were given to me. I can only hope others find this calling, and if they do, I hope they find a beginning farmer and rancher program. I feel these programs will set not only this generation but future generations on a successful path. We need new farmers and ranchers since the average age of today's farmer is 60 years old. The opportunities are there and a good program, like "Farm Beginnings" is the first step.”