[caption id="attachment_229859" align="aligncenter" width="1024"] Beth Johnson, left, Stanley Johnson, Linda Johnson, Tammy Osborne, Krista Johnson celebrate the Johnson family farm being named a Delaware Century Farm in May 2022. | PHOTO COURTESY OF THE DELAWARE DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE[/caption]
MILLSBORO — In a century, at least three generations of the Johnson family have been growing crops on a farm 2 miles north of Millsboro. And while the techniques, machinery and even the crops have changed over time, the work itself hasn’t.“The work is still the work, and it’s getting harder to find people who want to do it that aren't family,” said Stanley Johnson, a third generation farmerof the Johnson’s 25-acre farm off Route 24. “The majority of farms here in Delaware seem to be run by families, whether it’s two brothers, a nephew, a son or even a daughter.”Delaware started a Century Farm program in 1987, and since then the First State has recognized 152 farms that have run in the family for ar least 100 years. The Johnsons joined that select circle in May 2022. To qualify, farms must own and farm the land for that time, be at least 10 acres of the original parcel bought or gross more than $10,000 annually in agricultural sales.“It’s definitely humbling to think we’ve been around for 100 years,” he said. “I was thinking back on the stories my Dad told me, and how my siblings and I grew up. I remember how it felt being on the tractor with my Dad, and his arm around me so I didn’t fall off.”The Johnson family can trace their farming roots to 1918, when George T. Johnson bought the land for $2,000 (or $36,000 in today’s dollars) and grew vegetables like potatoes and sweet corn until the 1940s.“Back then, growing green crops was a way to take care of yourself,” Stanley Johnson said. “You grew what you ate and then you would sell the extra.”By the 1950s, chickens were popularized in Sussex County, and the Johnsons decided to cash in and transition to growing corn and soybean for poultry feed. The family also raised chickens themselves for Townsends Inc,, another family enterprise that grew into one of the first industrial chicken producers.After his grandfather died, Stanley’s father, Richard, bought the farm from his brother and continued the work.“My father and I kept farming and then the houses came,” Stanley Johnson said. “With all the land here, it became clear that it became more profitable to build houses than farm the land. My Dad used to tell me, ‘If they keep going, there won’t be anything from Route 113 to the beach.’”As the Sussex housing boomchurned on, Stanley Johnson noticed farms becoming smaller and smaller, and some turning to specialty crops like lima beans and sweet corn.“Farming isn’t cheap, and with the larger pieces of equipment can cost in the millions. I never expected the growth we’ve had, but it’s also human nature to expect things to be the way you left them,” he said. “It’s either get used to it and change with it, or get left behind.”Reflecting on 100 years of farming history, Johnson joked that the Century Farm designation is “a pride thing,” but added that holding onto land for three generations is something special to celebrate.“My daughter said once, ‘It’s all about the land and you can’t make land back,’” he said. “I think we’re going to see more smaller farms (300 acres or less) here in Delaware because the profit margin can be hard, as well as the longevity of the family holding it.”While Stanley has slowed down farming himself these days, he does hope his daughter can take the reins and lead the enterprise in the next chapter: agri-tourism, complete with pumpkin patches and corn mazes.“Agritourism is more possible today than it was 20 years ago, though it’s not as common on the western side of the county,” he said. “Change is around us and you have to go with it – if the desire is there for it.”
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