What is in this article?:
• For Kirk Brock and Myron Johnson, the search for an edge in making a living on the farm means thinking beyond the afternoon weather and putting confidence in science.
ALABAMA GROWER Myron Johnson talking with Wendy-Lin Bartels, an anthropologist with the Southeast Climate Consortium.
Blending tradition, science
The rain was as loud as pennies falling on the roof of the truck’s cab. March is technically still the dry season for southern Alabama, but that doesn’t guarantee blue skies day in and out. Bartels had brought me to Myron Johnson’s farm to see some of the unique ways he copes with challenges of farming in Alabama.
Along with William Birdsong, Johnson’s local agriculture Extension agent, we had been watching Johnson work in his field until the fat drops of rain sent us racing for cover.
Right before the downpour, Johnson, owner of Double J Farms, had been showing off the new machine he created to flatten the cereal rye he’d been growing since December. The machine behind the tractor makes it easier than ever for him to roll the grass into submission, thousands of stalks pointing accusingly at the device that just pancaked them.
After 10 minutes, the storm broke off into a drizzle. Johnson dashed from the cab of his tractor to his truck, and we headed back to the nerve center of his farm to talk about what we had just witnessed.
Johnson is a ball of energy and quick to crack a joke. What’s more, he laughs at these jokes like someone else told them, to the point where you can’t help but join in with him.
He’s also a contradiction, a man who carries an old Nokia brick cell phone with a black and white screen, but owns a tractor that drives itself in a straight line using the latest GPS system, an individualist who doesn’t want anyone telling him what to do, but also someone who gives much of his time to others through countless volunteer hours at his church.
Johnson grew up on the farm he currently runs near Headland, Alabama. With the exception of a stint installing auditorium seats at age 15, he’s farmed this land — which his parents originally called “Johnson 5-M Farms,” with the “M” standing for the first letter of the family members’ names — full time since he graduated high school in 1979.
Johnson ran the farm with a cousin from 1984 until 2003, when his cousin passed away from cancer.
With that kind of history behind him, you might expect Johnson to stand by tradition and he does, to an extent. “We’re a little reluctant to plant if the pecan trees aren’t budding by Easter,” he said, referring to a traditional planting schedule farmers have followed in the region for generations.
At the same time, he’s willing to tinker. “If there’s something new, I’m all for it. Because until you tried what you’re doing now, you wouldn’t know how well it worked, either,” he explained.
His willingness to tinker is what led Johnson to start killing his winter crops each spring, even if it seems like madness to an outsider. The method to this madness is to conserve some of the precious resources farmers are constantly battling for in the Southeast.
Planting rye in December helps stabilize the soil and conserve moisture. But after he spends three months cultivating it, he doesn’t harvest it. Instead, he kills it and leaves it in the field, where it protects the seedlings of the cash crops that Johnson plants each spring.