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 and hand-held devices make notes; and groups of company support personnel 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, lettuce, and other crops. Cover crops are used extensively to build soil health and maintain fertility organically.
Johnston bought the former dairy farm in 1975 and set up both the research and production fields and his offices here.
"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 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."