Leading the way

Oroville farmer named California Farm Bureau president

The Johansson family at their farm.

The Johansson family at their farm.

photo by amanda miller

Meet Jamie:
Butte County Farm Bureau will host its annual dinner Friday, Jan. 26, at Gold Country Casino. Tickets are $75-$100. For more information, visit buttefarmbureau.com.

As darkness begins to flood the horizon, Jamie Johansson can often be found driving his three children around the family’s orchard. They grab flashlights and search for wildlife—raccoons, skunks, deer—appreciating what surrounds them.

Johansson, a former vice mayor of Oroville and owner of Lodestar Farms, which is known for its olive oil, was named California Farm Bureau Federation president last month. In his new role at the nonprofit, Johansson will speak to farmers across California and lobby for policies that benefit, protect and promote farms and ranches.

Johansson is a first-generation farmer who became enamored with the complexities of the industry during his senior year of high school in Humboldt County. He’d seek out summer work at his friends’ family farms, which he said helped him learn life-long lessons regarding work ethic.

“It was one year in FFA that was a career-changer for me,” he said. “I didn’t realize it at the time, but it sparked a fire that has grown to farming 80 acres.”

The Johanssons—Jamie; his wife, Nicole; and their children Jack, 10, Luke, 7, and Kate, 6—grow olives and citrus, primarily blood oranges and Meyer lemons, that they sell fresh and infused in olive oils. The couple helped start the Sierra Oro Farm Trail, a nonprofit association whose members, mostly farmers and business people, share a mission to develop agricultural tourism in Butte County.

Johansson said he’s a little jealous of his children, who’ve been able to grow up on a farm. “They love to help put labels on the bottles and, of course, feeding the chickens, changing irrigation, driving around on the Gator,” he said, mentioning the small John Deere utility vehicle that’s so popular with farmers. “It’s fun. It’s kind of like, at that age, what you dreamed about.”

It was a desire to make a difference and have his voice heard that led Johansson to pursue membership in the Farm Bureau back in the mid-’90s. “My wife would say I never stopped raising my hand. I kept getting appointed to the next role or taking on the next task,” he said. “I’m excited and humbled by the opportunity to speak for California farmers all over the country.”

Before he became a farmer, Johansson attended the University of Alabama and Colorado State University, where he studied political science. He became the state Farm Bureau’s second vice president in 2009, then served as first vice president for two years. For 17 years, he was Butte County Farm Bureau’s board president.

Colleen Cecil, executive director of the Butte County Farm Bureau, described Johansson as a farmer at heart and an ideal person for such an important role in the organization and the industry.

“He has an ability to always present in a passionate, yet confident, manner to get the most impact and likely a response from the people he’s sharing it with,” she said. “He is a wonderful advocate and voice and face for farmers.”

As far as his agenda for 2018, Johansson says two big issues facing California are water management and implementing a flexible guest worker program for immigrants.

The state has to recognize that rules and regulations that don’t allow water to move efficiently from the north to the south can create another drought in Southern California, putting a heavy load on everyone. “Our economy is extremely tied to water and agriculture,” he said.

California needs to invest in water infrastructure projects, and the passage of Proposition 1, which allocates $2.7 billion to water storage projects, dams and reservoirs, is an important step, he said.

“Immediately, we need to ensure that those moneys go to projects that really make a difference, whether it’s Sites Reservoir or Temperance Flats,” he said. “Lake Oroville and the spillway is a clear example—those kind of infrastructure updates and repairs really should be happening before we get a catastrophic situation, whether it’s a drought or it’s a rainfall period where the spillway can’t handle the water.”

Most small farms have seasonal employees, many of them coming from Mexico for a period of months, Johansson said. There needs to be an easier way for those employees to gain legal status. “We need those opportunities for workers to be able to follow the harvest or simply the freedom to change jobs if better opportunities become available for them,” he said.

The Farm Bureau also has debates about climate change, Johansson said, but “the hallmark of farming for 10,000 years has been the ability to adapt to the climate at the time.” If the governor says California is anticipating more wildfires and droughts, the organization’s response is going to be finding a mechanism to minimize those changes, Johansson said, like storing more water and improving forest management.

The poverty level in California is significant, Johansson said. Unfortunately, a lot of that is happening “in our own backyards.” Much of it has to do with the agriculture industry having its “hands tied behind its back” in terms of access to water, labor opportunities, employee regulations and expanding operations.

“We will face those same issues if we don’t handle the problem now,” Johansson said. “We want to grow this economy, and California agriculture is willing and ready to play a big part in that.”