True grit

Ginger and sweet potatoes in Nevada? Don’t tell the state’s first certified organic farm it can’t be done.

Farmers Ray and Virginia Johnson of Custom Gardens Organic Produce Farm.

Farmers Ray and Virginia Johnson of Custom Gardens Organic Produce Farm.

Photo By nicole seaton

Custom Gardens Organic Produce Farm. 3701 Elm St., Silver Springs. Farm hours: Main season, Sunday at the onsite farmers green market; Off season, fall to spring, by appointment. Learn more by calling 577-2069, or visit

Hawaiian ginger may seem out of place in the desert, yet there is one oasis in Northwestern Nevada where it grows. Ray and Virginia Johnson put the green in green thumb by proving that one can grow just about anything in the desert—and without the use of harmful pesticides and unnatural additives.

Custom Gardens Organic Produce Farm and CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) is the first certified organic produce farm in Nevada, and the Johnsons are pioneers in the organic farming movement. Their Silver Springs farm, which they have owned since 1988, draws people from all walks of life to their rural haven. Found at the junction of U.S. 50 and U.S. 95A, Custom Organics is about an hour’s drive from Reno.

From artichokes to zucchini

The Johnsons have been setting the standard for organic agriculture in Northern Nevada for over two decades. The farm is 2.6 acres in total—not large by any standard, but the husband and wife team make good use of their space. The farm’s products are sold at Whole Foods, Great Basin Community Food Co-op, and on Sundays when they open up their farm to the public. They also provide food to 30 CSA members, some of whom work five hours a week on the farm in exchange for a weekly box of organic food.

To be an organic farmer, it’s not enough to just grow organic food. Everything from the seeds to the soil have to be carefully documented to ensure that the farm conforms to national and state organic farming standards. The Johnsons, like all certified organic farmers, are visited by private certification agencies. The inspector comes to the farm and asks for records, and they meticulously check bags of seed and soil for certified organic status.

While Ray pulls a bag of their prized Hawaiian ginger from the freezer, his wife produces a laminated printout of their farm plan. “It’s all computerized,” she says. The ginger and the farm plan placed next to each other on the dining room table seem to symbolize the two most important elements of an organic farm: the artistry of growing high quality food coupled with a scientist’s detailed precision.

The ground up

As consumers become more concerned with potential chemicals in food, there has been an increased demand for high-quality, pesticide free food. While non-organic farmers can treat their crops with chemicals, at this farm, it’s done as it was in a time before chemical pesticides.

“You pick them by hand,” Ray says of pests with a laugh.

Greater consumer interest for organic produce is key to the success of farmers like the Johnsons, and it starts from the ground up. While a bag of organic seeds may cost more, supporting companies that sell them can help lower prices and raise food quality for everyone.

“They [consumers] really should support the organic seed industry to fill this demand, or the price will never come down,” Virginia says.

Just as chefs insist on the best ingredients, many organic farmers believe good food starts from the ground up. The Johnsons recommend that people interested in growing their own organic food use the highest-quality organic soil possible.

It’s a cold and windy day on the farm, which makes ducking into the tropical, humid warmth of each hoop house enjoyable. Ray, farm map in hand, explains what is growing in each area. Imperial Star Globe artichokes, scallions, sweet potatoes and carrots are just a small sample of the farm’s organic products. Nearby, two goats alternately graze and bleat at the farm dog, while Ray surveys the fruits of his family’s labor.

“We’ve never regretted what we’re doing,” he says.