Package of Johnny's Selected Seeds
Package of Johnny's Selected Seeds

One-on-One with Rob Johnston, Jr

Growing an Independent Seed Company

Rob Johnston, Jr., Johnny's Chairman of the Board & FounderArticle by Mary Yee
Managing Editor & Art Director for The American Gardener

Originally published March–April 2009
Republished here with permission from the American Horticultural Society

VEGETABLE GARDENING is on an upswing among American home gardeners, and for Rob Johnston, Jr, it's good news. For more than 40 years, the founder of Johnny's Selected Seeds (JSS), located in Winslow, Maine, has been quietly espousing the merits of organic vegetable gardening and building an award-winning company.

Small commercial growers are JSS's primary customers, but home gardeners also look to JSS for a variety of vegetable seeds, many of them organic and heirloom, some bred by Johnston himself. Last year, amid rising gasoline prices and the weakening US economy, JSS experienced a dramatic surge in its home gardening base, a phenomenon also noted by many other seed companies. Gardening for food, which had long taken a backseat to ornamental gardening, is suddenly in fashion again. "We didn't see it coming," Johnston admits. "It was a huge surprise."

Johnston has seen many changes in the seed business. In 1973, when he founded JSS after dropping out of college to pursue farming, "organic" was far from mainstream. JSS was one of the few American sources for then hard-to-find Asian produce (Johnston had to get seeds from Japan). Once operating from a farmhouse attic, JSS is now an employee-owned company with a staff of 100, a seed production facility, and a 100-acre organic trial and research farm, but its mission — with a nod to Johnny Appleseed, the inspiration for the company's name — remains simple: "Helping family, friends, and communities to feed one another by providing superior seeds, tools, information, and service."

Managing Editor and Art Director Mary Yee talked with Johnston before the start of the 2009 growing season to get his insights on the renewed interest in vegetable gardening, the potential impact of biotechnology on home gardening, and some of his new projects in breeding vegetables.

Mary Yee :  JSS is one of the few American seed companies that is still independently owned. Does this offer an advantage in running the business?

Rob Johnston, Jr :  As an employee-owned company, Johnny's is beholden only to our customers, and I think we're stronger this way than if we were part of a big corporation. We've grown the business entirely through the good graces of our customers, with no equity investment. From what I've observed, service to the customer generally diminishes with corporate consolidation — perhaps because of the diminished enthusiasm of the people involved.

What changes have you seen in vegetable gardening over the years?

During the 1970s, there was a back-to-the-earth movement and a vocational appeal to growing food at home, driven by the feeling that "maybe I'm going to have to know how to do this some day." But the 1980s saw a back-to-the-office movement, so interest in home vegetable gardening went into a decline for about 25 years.

Last year, there was a big increase in home vegetable gardening in the US, Canada, and the UK, which we think will continue in 2009. Along with an increase in garden size and number of gardens, we've also noted more gardeners growing high-caloric crops such as potatoes, winter squash, corn, and carrots — not just salad greens as in previous years.

What types of people are ordering vegetable seeds from JSS?

Many are gardeners who grew vegetables in the past and are coming back to it to save money, but there are also a lot of newcomers who are more interested in a better quality of life — eating the freshest food and knowing where it comes from. And with rising gasoline prices, many people are realizing that gardening is something fun and productive that they can do without driving someplace.

Most catalogs focus on selling products, but the JSS catalog contains so much information that it's almost a growing handbook. It must be timeconsuming and expensive to produce each year. Why do you do it?

A great seed is only a concentrated bit of potential. We go to the trouble to supply good seeds, so we want to give gardeners the most detailed information — ideal sowing temperature, pests to watch for, and how to tell optimum maturity for harvesting — to give them the best chance to get optimal results.

JSS is among a list of seed suppliers who participate in the Safe Seed Initiative (SSI). Could you tell us what that is?

The SSI is a joint project of concerned seed growers, farmers, and scientists. As a participant in the SSI, Johnny's pledges to not knowingly buy or sell genetically modified (GMO) seeds or plants.

In the 1999 catalog, I wrote that while Johnny's didn't carry any GMOs, we were "open-minded about this new technology," and that we would consider the new biotech seed varieties one at a time. I didn't think it was a provocative statement, but we received dozens of letters from people who were against GMOs and found our open-mindedness so unacceptable that some of them organized a boycott. Our signing of the SSI pledge helped to reassure people that JSS was not abandoning its core values.

Does biotechnology have a legitimate place in horticulture?

I remain intrigued with the possibilities, but there haven't been any engineered traits in vegetable crops that aren't possible with conventional plant breeding techniques.

Other than a few summer squash and sweet corn varieties, there aren't any GMO vegetables on the market. Some companies have developed varieties with GMO traits, such as herbicide-resistant lettuce, but they have yet to be marketed. The American public seems to accept GMO crops when the plant is invisible, such as syrup from engineered corn in a packaged food product, but it is not yet willing to buy a head of GMO lettuce for a salad.

One aspect of the business of genetic engineering that I'm against is its concentration in large corporations, which could put the control of the plants we eat into the hands of a very few.

You've been interested in plant breeding from the beginning and have developed many varieties for JSS. Of those, do you have some favorites?

It's hard for me to settle on my favorites, but 'Lipstick' pepper comes to mind. It was one of my first sweet peppers in the mid-1980s. It's still as popular as ever. I selected this small, cone-shaped, very sweet-flavored pepper from a cross between two early bell peppers.

I also like 'Diva' cucumber, which won a 2002 All-America Selections award. It's a delicious, seedless, non-hybrid cucumber bred by my wife, Janika Eckert. When you taste it, you realize that simple pleasures can make the world a better place.

What goes into breeding a new variety?

It typically takes eight to ten plant generations of breeding work to finish a new variety, and only one or two percent are named and marketed. It can be nervewracking throwing out new plants, but breeding is both an art and a science. A good plant breeder makes the right choices in keeping the few winners.

So what do you consider, when you're evaluating potential new varieties?

A typical Johnny's customer is a mixed market gardener with between five and fifty acres or an avid home gardener. Most aren't in an ideal location to grow anything, so we focus on wide adaptability — another way to say "easy to grow in diverse conditions" — and flavor.

Could you tell us about some of your current breeding projects?

We're working on lettuce that adapts to hot, humid summer weather, and early-maturing pumpkins with resistance to foliar diseases, especially powdery mildew. We're also looking at peppers for early maturity, tolerance to cool nights, and resistance to fruit rot, and tomatoes with resistance to foliar diseases such as early blight, septoria leaf spot, and late blight.

What's been the most gratifying part of growing JSS the last 35 years?

Talking with a customer and learning that Johnny's has been important in the success of his or her farm or home garden.



Interview author Mary Yee is Managing Editor & Art Director for The American Gardener.

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