Johnson family farm runs seven generations strong
By CAROL KINSLEY
SELBYVILLE, Del. — The Henry C. Johnson family has a long-standing love for agriculture, as it has been in their blood for seven generations. Patriarch of the family now is Henry C. Johnson III, whose great-great-great grandfather began farming in the Selbyville area in the mid-1800s.
His father, Henry C. Johnson Jr., decided not to continue his education in preparation for becoming a teacher as his father wished, returning instead to the farm and helping with expansion of the broiler operation in 1928. Over time, the broiler houses were converted to laying hen houses and eventually back to broiler production until 2006.
The acreage expanded also, starting with the original 40 acres and growing to almost 160 acres when Henry III and his father formed a partnership in 1952. The farm was expanded even more in 1965 with the purchase of 333 acres from Henry III’s father-in-law. Today the farming operation consists of 800 acres, 300 of which are under irrigation.
Hogs were also a part of the farming operation and were raised in open-air lots until the family moved toward confinement in the 1960s. Henry III and his father did not rush into expansion when the market was up, but followed long-term plans, expanding slowly and cautiously.
In 1962 they began moving toward confinement production; they built a 16-pen farrowing house with a feed room at one end. According to a newspaper article found in a family scrapbook, the sows were turned out twice a day for feeding. Two weeks after farrowing, the sows and piglets were moved to a nursery. The pigs were weaned at six weeks and “finished” in the field.
New farrowing and nursery facilities were constructed and in 1966, one chicken house was converted for hogs. The new facilities included porcelain slatted floors which kept the pigs cleaner and drier. The farrow-to-finish hog operation produced 3,500 hogs per year at its peak, with hogs marketed through Hatfield Quality Meats. Production has been cut to 2,500 hogs annually in the last few years.
Most of the acreage is devoted to corn and soybeans for grain. When Johnson’s Country Market was established in 2000, the family added sweet corn, u-pick pumpkins and several acres of vegetables.
While the market has expanded each year, the family has cut back on vegetable production, although 12 acres of pumpkins remain as part of the attraction for agritourism interest in the fall, along with a corn maze, pallet maze and Family Fun Day in October. The market is open daily from mid-April through Halloween.
In addition to produce from local farmers, the family sells spring bedding plants, mums and fall accessories. During the holidays, the market reopens for a few days to sell fresh Delaware-grown turkeys, pies, Hatfield hams and more.
Henry III married Marylou Pepper in April 1958; they have four grown children. Arlene, the only daughter, is married to Mark Callahan and has one son and two grandsons. She and her husband live in Pennsylvania.
Henry III said, “Before she graduated high school she did just about everything there was to do. But at 16, she got a summer job, then finished school, went for more school and got married.” She earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees and worked her way up the ladder in business, he continued.
The three Johnson sons have remained on the farm. Henry Clay Johnson IV, better known as Clay, and his wife Wanda have three children. Glenn P. Johnson Sr. and his wife Julie also have three children. Keith W. Johnson and his wife Rebecca have two daughters, with another baby due in June.
The family’s seventh generation “grandchildren” have worked or still work full and part time on the farm.
Henry Jr. died in 1990. Henry III’s sons together bought half-ownership in the farm that same year to continue the partnership with their father, and in 1998, when Henry III turned 63, he turned the farm over to them entirely.
That doesn’t mean his working days are over. He still spends full days on a mower or helping in other ways.
Henry III lamented the high cost of equipment. “One of the first John Deere tractors we bought was a 4020. Dad and I were looking. The difference between the 3020 and the 4020 was six or seven thousand dollars. We bought the bigger tractor. Now you’re looking at between 10 to 20 times that much.”
As a comparison, he recalled, “When I was a preteen, Mama gave me a dime to walk to the store and bring home a loaf of bread. I bought a loaf this morning that was on sale for $1.99.”
The Johnson family also has a long history of service to the state and county Farm Bureau.
The family was named Sussex County and then state Farm Family of the Year in 2007. Henry Jr. was Sussex County president in 1958 and also served as a director. Henry III also served as a director for Sussex County and was one of the organizers, in 1964, of the Farm Bureau Youth group now called the Young Farmers and Ranchers.
Keith and Rebecca have been active in YF&R since 1997; Keith was YF&R chairman until 2011. He is currently serving as a Sussex County director.
Henry III joined the Roxanna Volunteer Fire Department in 1968. “This June it’s been 44 years,” he said. “I’ve been secretary, chief, assistant chief.... I’m currently appointed assistant secretary of the Sussex County Firefighters Association.” He has been secretary since 1979.
He, Clay and Glenn Sr. are all life members, and Mary Lou is a life member of the Ladies Auxiliary. Keith is also a member. Henry III was named Sussex County Fireman of the Year in 2005.
Henry III and Wanda are directors and Clay is secretary of the Delaware Pork Producers Board. Henry III also has served on the Nutrient Management Committee and the Delaware Council of Farm Organizations. He also is chairman of the managers of four tax ditches between Delaware and Maryland.