Down on the farm

Farming is tough, but Lewis Johnson wouldn’t trade it for the world

FARM DOG <br>Butte County Farmer Lewis Johnson says his dog, Chauncey, is sweet, but “she’s a little bit hard on the sheep—likes to chew on the ankle now and then.”

Butte County Farmer Lewis Johnson says his dog, Chauncey, is sweet, but “she’s a little bit hard on the sheep—likes to chew on the ankle now and then.”

Photo by Tom Angel

Diversify: Lewis Johnson named his latest venture, Butte View Olive Co., after the scene visible from his family farm near Palermo. The olive oil he bottles himself is already sold at Albertson’s and in Chico gift shops.

The Johnson Ranch is past Palermo, beyond the well-kept mobile homes, rusted barbed wire and grazing cattle where dogs randomly pop out of a field of dry grass like they need to see where they’re going. On an otherwise-deserted corner, teen boys of Mexican descent hang out with white guys toting basketballs, looking like they’re waiting to hook up for a game. The ranch is down a long street lined with dozens of palm trees, a weird remnant of when the area was the playground of William Randolph Hearst and other wealthy, Roaring ‘20s types.

Lewis Johnson, whose grandfather bought the ranch in 1936, gets up every morning at 4. He doesn’t even bother to wear regular shoes any more; he’s in and out of water and muck so much that rubber boots—with insoles added for arch support—are less of a hassle. His Wranglers have a cell phone with a dirt-dusted cover at the side, and under his genial grin he sports a gray beard that dips so low on his face it looks Amish. Johnson wears a ball cap in the winter but trades it for a shadier cowboy hat during summer, because, he points out, who has time to deal with skin cancer?

Right now, the task at hand is irrigation, and everything else will have to wait. With the exception of a part-time worker and crews hired during harvest, Johnson’s is a one-man operation.

Johnson, with all his family ties to the farming ways of the past, has embraced what is farmers’ best bet for a future: diversification. He has more than one venture, and still none alone is “big enough to support the whole operation.”

He has 150 acres of olives scattered on owned and rented land in Palermo and Wyandotte.

He’s one of a handful of locals in aquaculture—nurturing baby catfish no longer than a fingernail into hearty fish that are sold live to markets in San Francisco or at a discount to local charity fishing pursuits. In the business since he started with two ponds in 1970, Johnson now serves on the Board of Directors for the California Aquaculture Association.

Ten years ago, he added sheep to the mix, which he learned to shear himself to cut costs, and now has 160 head—watched over by a pair of llamas. The female, Angel, lopes majestically through the field as the sheep follow. Johnson bought the llamas a year ago after losing one lamb too many to coyotes or dog packs. “We haven’t had the coyote problem since,” Johnson said. Angel escorts dogs out of the field as if to say, “You are to leave.”

Johnson is a popular and respected figure among his fellow farmers. He was president of the Butte County Farm Bureau, ending in 2000. “Any more, I think it’s more necessary than it’s ever been to get affiliated with a group so you have the voice of a group rather than just one person,” he said. Farmers have become such a small percentage of the United States population, Johnson said, “we’re not even counted in the census.”

His latest move to counteract the downward trend is into the niche market of olive oil. He grows five varieties of olives, and prices are low all around. Even worse, canners no longer covet the Ascolona variety, which makes up a good portion of Johnson’s crop. But it makes good oil, so Johnson saw oil in his future. “Marketing is sure different,” remarked Johnson, who is chairman of the board of an olive-growers’ co-op based at the old Tri-Valley Growers cannery in Madera.

He’s excited—and perhaps a little nervous, given the $110,000 investment—about the impending arrival of a machine he’s ordered from Italy that grinds and presses olives.

Lewis Johnson grew up with his mother in the Bangor area, not on the Palermo ranch, and now lives in Thermalito. He did 4-H and had a small dairy herd when he was younger, but “after milking cows every day I decided that’s not what I wanted to do—be tied down twice a day.”

He has three grown children and six stepchildren, none of whom is interested in going into farming. He doesn’t blame them a bit but wonders if his grandchildren may one day feel differently.

“You’ve got to enjoy this profession in order to do it and stay with it, because if it’s the money, forget about it,” he said.

Johnson was only 18 when he took over, in 1966. He married young and had to go back to work after little more than a semester spent in junior college. His father, Don, who lives in a farmhouse on the ranch property, had lost the use of his legs in the Korean War and wasn’t able to do everything the farm required.

Don Johnson, 72, says farming is a lot different nowadays and he can’t imagine how someone could get in now without land in the family, when “you’re fighting property values so big.” Equipment costs so much now, and minimum wage laws, unfair global trade and environmental restrictions further cut into the pie.

“All farming’s changed tremendously,” he said. “It goes in cycles, but I think this is coming into the worst ever.” The prices of some commodities are lower than they were 30 years ago, the senior Johnson said.

“But once you’ve got it in your blood, you’ve got it in your blood,” he shrugged.

His son agrees: “It becomes a lifestyle. There’s a certain amount of independence. You just take what you make and you write in the hours you spend doing it, and you don’t even make minimum wage.”

Some bright spots, Lewis Johnson notes, are in the state budget now pending before the Senate. The sales tax on diesel fuel for agricultural use would be eliminated for a year, and the sales tax on farm equipment would be gone altogether.

Legislators, he said, "are beginning to understand that the industry is not in that great of a state. We’re such a minority to begin with, but we accomplish an awful lot. Once you lose your farmers, where are you going to get your food from?"