Monday, April 15, 2024

Former Air Force analyst rallies family to redevelop farmland organically

Steady…steady…BANG! A clear shot takes the 2-foot-long cottonmouth snake out as it slithers into murky pond water. The graceful sharpshooter tucks her 9mm handgun back into her hip holster. Continues the Honda ATV dirt trip to a newly organic, 3-acre setup. “Always have to watch my surroundings,” said 28-year-old Ashley Johnson, a former U.S. Air Force budget analyst. Marksmanship and outdoorsmanship serve as farming advantages. Making Johnson’s readjustment from service to civilian life an easy swap.

Her newest badge of honor after returning home: Lee County’s first Black female veteran farmer to become 100 percent U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) certified organic. In merely six months. Johnson mastered producing crops grown and processed according to federal guidelines. So, no genetically modified organisms. Addressing factors like weed/pest control, soil quality, use of additives. Depending purely on natural substances and biologically based farming methods to harvest organic tomatoes, squash, bell peppers, cucumbers and watermelons. The federal agency confirmed the certification status by mail July 2021.

Ashley Johnson holding summer 2021 organic squash after a harvest.

The expert money manager and contract reader now adds to the nation’s sustainable farming movement from Leesburg, Georgia. Results from a 2019 USDA Organic Survey numbered organic farms at 16,585. Totaling 5.5 million acres and producing up to $9.9 billion in sales. Since the most recent 2016 survey of certified organic agriculture, sales of certified organic commodities continue to rise. Up 31 percent from 2016 to 2019. The number of operations producing certified organic foods increased 17 percent. Land used for certified organic produce moved up 9 percent. California dominates in the most certified organic farms, according to the survey. Southern states lagging.

Still, Johnson wanted in. Her family already owned dormant farmland. New grocery store signage labeled “USDA ORGANIC” confirming a change in consumers’ appetite. And Johnson’s high school classmate and organic farmer Sedrick Rowe just made national headlines earlier this year for his innovative work in the niche market. The natural mentor to take her through USDA’s laborious certification process. But first, buy in. Parental approval and support to access the mostly forested, generational property. And do so full time.

“Ashley puts her whole heart in soul into everything she does,” her father, Emanuel Johnson, 59, said. “It was an instant yes.” As a thank you, Ashley named her agribusiness after both parents. Their nicknames. Her mother: Shy. Her father: Guy. The first recruits to ShyGuy LLC. “I’m the ‘gopher,’” Faye Johnson, 57, said. “I go for this. Go for that.” Faye picks up minor supplies. Emanuel handles heavier equipment. A call to Rowe set into motion training days ahead. Demo dos and don’ts to this type of farming. Charting high value crops Coastal Plain counties favor. Allowing sufficient space for produce to stretch out.

Johnson cuffs one of hundreds of organic watermelons camouflaged in her leafy-rich patch.

Ashley sticks to the schedule. Up by 6 a.m. Pulling weeds by 7. Harrowing and cutting grass before Georgia humidity takes over. By sundown, footwork to pull unwanted weeds. Her and Rowe’s mutual farming friend, Heather Wilson, swings by a few weekdays and weekends as an extra pair of weed control hands. With each day, Ashley values the family land more. Truly embracing the staying power her late grandfather, Willie Johnson, put into the property. She’s the first family member to reuse the farmland after he passed away at age 77 in 1990.

Just organically now. USDA accredited, ShyGuy LLC earned its National Organic Program (NOP) Organic Certificate at the top of July. Part of USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service, NOP is authorized under the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990. The program maintains regulatory oversight for the federal agency’s organic standards. Based in Washington, D.C., NOP helps guides more than 80 certifying agents and 27,800 certified organic operations around the globe. Since Ashley is a Georgia resident, the Georgia Crop Improvement Association serves as her legal certifying agency. The association inspected and reviewed ShyGuy LLC, determining the agribusiness certified to USDA Organic regulations.

The Air Force vet posing with fellow farmer Heather Wilson (left) and mom Faye Johnson.

Although African Africans have been organic farming for centuries, the certification puts the culture’s long history of regenerative agriculture practices on legal paper. Go back to the early 1900s. Dr. George Washington Carver led comprehensive research about the subject. He identified how to renew soil biology. Codified crop rotation with nitrogen-fixing legumes. Saved American fields and Southern farmers with such discoveries, too. Ashley indexes the famous plant scientist’s teachings. And full-time farms like her grandfather.

Willie provided for his wife, Earnie, and their 12 kids by growing watermelon, corn, cotton, okra, greens and strawberries. Everything the family needed throughout the late 20th century on Lee County land. See “Lee County Community Profile” below. The county operated as a major cotton producer during the 19th and 20th century. Cotton plantations germinating the region. Over time, corn and peanuts became leading cash crops for local producers. Nowadays, the county supplies area farmers with ag resources like USDA’s Farm Service Agency and University of Georgia Extensive Service. Twelve miles from the county courthouse, the 12 siblings breathed the region’s rural boundaries daily. Originating from some of Georgia’s best agricultural soil.

Lee County’s ag resources for local farmers.

“With Daddy farming, Mom took care of us full time,” said Emanuel. “She made sure we had plenty of hot biscuits.” As time slipped away, so did conversations about the continuation of farming. The 12 ensured the property stayed in the family. But no one physically kept their father’s farming or mother’s gardening traditions alive. Corporate careers made more sense. This organic approach with Ashley, though, reminds Emanuel of his father’s commitment to Georgia Black Belt agriculture.

Why he and Faye commit to around-the-clock support. From flashlight duty to awkward-hour food deliveries so Ashley can stay on schedule. Most days, she works against nature. Against the occasional trespasser and seasonal hunter. Comes with the territory. Prior to the military, Ashley and her two brothers treated the property as a gun range and ATV obstacle course. Emanuel training his then-teens about gun safety. Faye checking in with homemade snacks and survival packs. “Out here,” Ashley said, “I use all that my parents taught me. Going with my instincts.”

The Johnsons to restore the family’s farming legacy through sustainable agriculture.

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