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Johnston finds farming a breath of fresh air after Desert Storm
By SEAN CLOUGHERTY
SMYRNA, Del. (Oct. 18, 2016) — With less than 20 percent of his lungs functioning after injuries sustained during his U.S. Army service in Operation Desert Storm as a combat engineer, Paul Johnston needed a lifeline.
He found one starting a small farm with his family.
Moving to northern Kent County 12 years ago for better air quality, Johnston said six years ago his children Carrie and Paul wanted to expand their garden into a larger operation, growing lettuce and herbs.
“We wanted to set something up in case something happened to me,” Johnston said. “My family decided to do this to keep me alive.”
On their 11-acre property, the Johnstons have three high tunnel greenhouses to grow arugula and other lettuces and few small plots for vegetables.
Growing niche crops on a very small scale, Johnston said they focus on quality and customer service. Johnston inspects each leaf of arugula as it’s packed into clamshell containers and directly to customers. Because of his injured lungs, he grows the crops without commercial herbicide or pesticides.
“We harvest and deliver the same day,” he said. “Everything has to be perfect. They get top quality but that’s why they pay more.”
Ed Knight, chef at the American Legion Post 838 in Port Penn, Del., started buying lettuce from Johnston in July, mainly for salad mixes in the post’s catering event and as side dish for come entres. He noted Johnston’s focus on quality and added the lettuce has been a popular part of his menu.
“It’s a veteran doing something that’s positive and doing it on his own and it’s local and people like that,” Knight said.
Recently, harsh winds whipped through the greenhouses, ripping the plastic covering and causing other damage that ultimately led to weed and pest infestations and unsaleable crops.
Intense heat waves in the summer surpassed the greenhouse’s ventilation capabilities and caused big losses.
“This year was very bad for air quality and I lost out,” he said. “That’s where we are now.”
The good news, Johnston said, is they should have the structures fixed in a few days and back growing again soon.
In spite of the problems, Johnston said the operation is therapeutic for him, physically challenging and psychologically rewarding.
“As long as you keep yourself upbeat happy and busy, you can keep yourself going. It’s all in the attitude,” he said.
For Johnston, farming helps him relieve stress, provides him with a clear mission and uses many of the skills he learned in the Army.
Johnston said he wants to spread the message of farming as a possible profession to other veterans ending their military service and unsure of their next steps.
“In reality, all of us should be able to convert over,” Johnston said of transitioning from the military to work in agriculture. “You already have the discipline built in to do it. You already know you don’t stop until the work is done. It’s the same thing in farming.”
From working closely with Extension educators at Delaware State University’s Small Farms Program, Johnston got connected to the Farmer Veteran Coalition, a national organization focused on developing viable employment and meaningful careers through the collaboration of the farming and military communities since 2008. It’s two main programs are the Homegrown By Heroes label for use on products grown and made by military veterans and the Farmer Veteran Fellowship Fund that assists veterans with advancing their careers in agriculture by giving them access to funding, resources and support services.
Johnston said he got involved with the coalition to be a resource to other veterans interested in farming.
“I joined it because I have something to give to another veteran,” Johnston said. He said the network in Delaware is still in its infancy but believes it will grow as more veterans learn of the resources available to start farming and the benefits from the work.
He added he can easily see several veterans working together, each on a small scale but combining their production to serve a wider customer base.
“If 25 of us get together, we’re big enough to sell to a grocery chain. All of a sudden, now we’re a partnership,” Johnston said. “Teamwork and mission. It all comes back to that.”