Johnny's Selected Seeds' research farm is the heart of the company. It is here that Johnny's carries out its mission to find and develop the best seeds and tools for farmers and gardeners.
The 40-acre farm is located in Albion, Maine, with 9 smaller fields nearby, all about 25 miles from Augusta, the state capital, and 8 miles from the company's offices in Winslow and Fairfield. At first glance, Johnny's farm looks like a typical market farm, with a dozen or so hoophouses and greenhouses and orderly fields of vegetables, herbs, and flowers. But a closer inspection reveals its true nature as a place of study and evaluation. Labels mark the variety trials; staff members with clipboards make notes; and groups of employees from the nonfarming parts of the company participate in guided "crop walks" and "field forums" across the seasons to learn about varieties and methods being trialed.
Research has been a priority at Johnny's since Rob Johnston, Jr. first founded the company in 1973. Rob grew every seed variety he sold at the start, and that tradition continues today.
"We don't sell varieties or tools that we haven't experienced firsthand here at the farm," Rob says.
That means Johnny's trials many hundreds of varieties every year at the Albion farm. Johnny's farm staff members use the tools the company sells, to ensure that they are useful and dependable. They also experiment with the latest growing techniques, and the company's library of instructional videos are filmed at the farm. The plant breeders continue to develop improved and specialty varieties of tomatoes, peppers, pumpkins, squash, and lettuce. Cover crops are used extensively to maintain fertility organically.
Johnston bought the former dairy farm in 1975 and set up both the research and production fields and his offices there.
"What appealed to me about this place was the soil — a beautiful, sandy loam," Rob recalls. "I knew it was good growing soil right from the start, because when I saw the fields for the first time in June, the hay was shoulder high."
For the first few years, Johnston planted about 10 acres for trials and breeding, from which he chose the varieties he offered in his catalog. At first, his emphasis was on finding varieties suitable for short-season climates. Over the years, the goal has evolved into a one that seeks better-tasting, easier-to-grow, adaptable varieties for fresh market farmers and home gardeners.
"During the early years, other companies wondered how we could afford to run trials, support plant breeding, and produce seeds in such a small company," he says. "I didn't think about being able to afford that work, which might make me a typical entrepreneur."
Part of the farm was certified organic by the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA) in 1979, and Johnny's maintains its certification. As a certified-organic grower and handler, Johnny's is able to offer a wide selection of organic seeds produced on its own farm as well as from numerous seed producers worldwide.
Johnny's does not sell genetically modified seeds; nor does it breed new varieties using genetic engineering. Rather, the breeding team at Johnny's breeds plants using traditional methods, a slow, painstaking process that can take eight or more years to complete, from the first selection to seed sales.
Rob Johnston started working on plant breeding in 1974 in Massachusetts, work he continued at the Albion farm, first hoping to develop a more delicious winter squash. "It took a long time. I think that the first named variety from the effort was winter squash 'Chestnut,' introduced around 1982," Rob says.
The successes have since piled up, however: Johnny's has introduced many new varieties of its own breeding, 12 of which are All-America Selections (AAS) Winners. The first AAS Winner came in 1993 with 'Baby Bear' pie pumpkin. A few other Johnny's AAS Winners include 'Bright Lights' Swiss chard; 'Diva' seedless cucumber; 'Sunshine' Kabocha squash; 'Bonbon' buttercup squash; and 'Carmen' sweet pepper. In addition, seeds for AAS Winner 'Honey Bear' acorn squash, bred by Brent Loy of the University of New Hampshire, are produced and marketed exclusively by JSS.
Another important function of the breeding program involves producing a sufficient quantity of seed to make new varieties commercially available. To achieve that aim, the farm includes seed production — from building up the first handful of seeds from the plant breeders to growing a commercial quantity for customers — in its annual production plans.
Fall is one of the busiest times of year for the farm's staff, as they complete the crop evaluations that guide decisions about which varieties to add to the catalog. They also have to harvest, process, and test the germination of the seed crops. And because season extension research is a priority for Johnny's, many crops are still growing in the field and being planted under row covers and in the hoophouses and greenhouses.
Johnny's relocated its offices and warehouse from the farm to Winslow, Maine in 2002. More recently, the administrative offices and call center have been moved just across the river, to Fairfield. In 2005, Rob Johnston and his wife, Janika Eckert, donated a conservation easement on all of the Johnny's farmland. The easement with Maine Farmland Trust ensures that the land will never be used for any purpose other than farming.