At an age when most toddlers were playing with blocks, Pete Johnson was pushing around earth in his parents’ plot in Vermont. “I always picked up soil,” he remembers, “and smelled it, felt it, rolled it in my hands.” As a teenager, he experimented with hand-made greenhouses, watching most of them blow away or collapse under snow. “By the time I was 14,” he says, “I remember thinking that I was going to be a farmer.”
Fast-forward two decades—Pete Johnson’s hands are still in the dirt. Johnson, now 36, owns and operates Pete’s Greens, a 230-acre farm in rural northern Vermont. He sells organic produce at a seasonal farmstand and through a CSA program to over 250 members. His greens are featured on the menus of acclaimed restaurants from Vermont to Boston to New York City.
“So much,” says Johnson, “depends on your soil.” He extensively composts his fields to build a base of nutrients. He cover crops—that is, he rotates nutrient-recycling and soil-protecting crops in with his actively producing plants—as a sustainable way to increase and maintain his soil’s fertility. Why the emphasis on his soil? Because produce from small organic farms should be more flavorful and more packed with nutrients. “When I eat food that was grown in lively soil—soil with nutrients that really feed the plants—I can taste the difference,” he says. Most of all, says Johnson, “I can care for every foot of soil in a way that just isn’t possible on a large operation.”
Johnson has to maximize his growing seasons. To protect crops, he designed four innovative 7,000-square-foot greenhouses that slide on metal tracks. He can now plant tomatoes in March or April under cover of one of the structures while frost and snow still cover the ground outside. After harvesting tomatoes in August, he’ll slide the structure over his signature crops—his greens, such as chard, parsley and kale—which will allow him to harvest into December. Meanwhile, the elements will cleanse the newly uncovered soil he holds so dear, and cool temperatures will rid it of the pests that often plague stationary greenhouses.
While Johnson would probably love to grow year-round, his greenhouses are not heated and he isn’t trying to completely defy the northern seasons. “Glory in the limitations of the seasons,” he says, “and fully exhaust what each season has to offer.” Eat it while it’s fresh, and pine for it when it’s not. It will taste that much better when it comes around again next year.
Pete’s Greens at Craftsbury Village Farm