FAIRFIELD — Food production in Jefferson County takes many forms, from conventional farming to organic practices.
The Union profiled J.D. Hollingsworth and his farm in rural Packwood last week, and this week The Union profiles another food producer in the county, Kris Johnson, who runs Maharishi International University’s organic farm north of Fairfield.
The farm is 30 acres, and 2.5 acres of it are in intensive vegetable production. Johnson’s role is not just to manage the crops but also to help guide the MIU students who come to the farm as part of their studies as they learn about its organic and regenerative practices.
Organic farming means farming without synthetic pesticides or fertilizers. Instead, Johnson said he uses things such as compost, compost sea, cover crops and green manure to provide fertility to the soil. For weed control, he relies on heavy mulches and promoting healthy soil.
Johnson grew up on a farm 6 miles east of Fairfield. It was a conventional farm with the typical Iowa row crops of corn and beans, plus cattle and pigs.
“My family also has a history of land stewardship, so even with conventional practices, we focus on taking care of the land that takes care of us,” Johnson said. “As I studied agriculture further, I got into organic agriculture, Korean natural farming, and alternative forms of agriculture.”
Johnson said he became interested in regenerative farming practices because they “build up the land as you use it,” rather than extracting and taxing it. One regenerative practice he mentioned was planting a “trap crop” that distracts a pest from the farm’s revenue-generating crops.
“Japanese beetles are a serious concern around here,” he said. “We could plant a radish or a grass, maybe a rye grass, and that would attract the Japanese beetles and distract them from our cash crops.”
The MIU farm’s cash crops feature 35 vegetables ranging from leafy greens, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, cabbage, cucumbers, squash and zucchini.
“If it’s a vegetable you’re familiar with, we probably grow it,” Johnson said.
Johnson said his favorite crops to grow are the ones that provide the biggest challenge, carrots and lettuce. Iowa’s heavy soil is nice and fertile but compacts easily, so it’s difficult for carrots to grow in. Lettuce is a difficult crop to grow in Iowa because the intense summer heat makes it turn bitter and go to seed. To prevent that, Johnson uses small, mobile greenhouses where he can moderate the temperature and grow high-quality lettuce all summer long.
The MIU farm sells his lettuce to the university’s campus food service to serve in the cafeteria. Its vegetables also go into a Community Supported Agriculture, a subscription service that provides produce for 40 people. Not only that, but the farm supplies produce to various businesses in town, such as Veraison Wine Bar and Fishback & Stephenson Cider House.
Johnson manages five employees, all professors at the university. He’s working on becoming a full professor himself, which he will accomplish in December when he completes his master’s degree in regenerative organic agriculture. He also plans to teach a class on ecology next May at MIU.
Back at home, Johnson is raising 15 head of cattle. He’s in his second year of that private venture, and said it’s going well.
“It’s another way to produce food for the local community,” Johnson said. “I see cattle as a tool to revitalize farmland. When farmers start considering farming hundreds of acres, they need to go into millions of dollars of debt to manage that much ground and be profitable. I wanted to avoid that but still have an enterprise with cash flow that would be beneficial to the environment. Cattle are something I grew up with, so it made sense to start there.”
Johnson said he intends to add sheep to his enterprise in the next year or so.
Kris Johnson runs the MIU organic farm north of Fairfield, and in his spare time he’s taken on the responsibility of raising 15 head of cattle. He said he hopes to add sheep to his enterprise in the near future. (Photo courtesy of Kris Johnson)
Call Andy Hallman at 641-575-0135 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org
Kris Johnson, second from left, leads a group of MIU students who are visiting a greenhouse as part of their studies. (Photo courtesy of Kris Johnson)