Bedford’s Johnson’s Orchards hits the century mark

December 23, 2018

BEDFORD, Va. (AP) — From its small beginning cultivating tomatoes in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains to growing apples, a Bedford County orchard has kept its roots in family traditions for a century now.

In August, Johnson’s Orchards in Bedford County celebrated 100 years of business.

“I love it,” Danny Johnson, 79, said. “It’s a challenge. You take a tree out here and you start pruning it and it’s like raising a kid. You see what you’ve done and where you’ve made a mistake and you try to correct it.”

On 215 acres, the farm is located at the foot of the Peaks of Otter and is the epitome of Virginia hospitality and country living, according to residents and guests alike.

Between six and eight employees work year-round to prune fruit trees, feed animals, serve customers and maintain the farm.

For many, the farm is easily recognizable by its 15-foot-tall Johnny Appleseed statue and 8-foot-tall LOVE sign.

Its quiet winter pastures transform during its annual summer Horse & Hound Wine Festival, when hundreds swarm the property and pose in front of a field of golden sunflowers.

It all began with John Johnson, who settled near where the Peaks of Otter Lodge is today, off the Blue Ridge Parkway on Virginia 43,back in the 1700s.

The lineage followed with Castleton Johnson, John T. Johnson, Jason Johnson, Robert Lee Johnson, and James “Elmo” Johnson, to son Danny Johnson.

In the 1900s, there were hardly any trees on the mountain, Danny Johnson said. They were all cut and used for firewood or to build houses. Most of the grounds were used for tomato growing and canning factories.

The Johnsons grew tomatoes as well as other fruits and if a frost killed all the fruit one winter, there were always tomatoes to be sold.

Danny Johnson’s father, Elmo, and grandfather, Robert Lee, pioneered the Johnson family apple orchard.

The Johnsons continued growing tomatoes until the mid-1950s, when Elmo Johnson decided he’d had enough of bending over.

“Daddy said he was tired of bending over picking tomatoes and he didn’t want to bend over no more,” Danny Johnson said. “He wanted to stand up and pick stuff and he had been familiar with the apples up there on the mountain.”

Once the family started planting apple trees it didn’t seem to stop. At one point there were about 350 acres of apple trees.

He remembers one piece of advice his grandfather, Robert Lee Johnson, gave him and he has been using it ever since.

“If you go out here and you work, make it into a game. If you’re digging a ditch, have fun with it. If you make your work fun, you don’t have a job, you’ve got a hobby. But if you go out here and your work isn’t fun, then you’ve got a job and that’s the worst thing in the world. Always have fun when you work,” he said.

By the mid-1950s, the farm was selling to the grocery-store chain Kroger, which had advised them to plant Red and Golden Delicious apples because their apples became riper 10 days to two weeks earlier than any place in the state because of the growing location.

All of Danny Johnson’s siblings were involved at some point with the family orchard.

Today the farm is about 215 acres, 25 of them dedicated to fruit including apples, peaches, plums, nectarines and blackberries.

Naturally, Johnson would like to see the business stay in the family.

“I would like to see it continue the way it is going,” he said. “When we started things we didn’t have any desire to conquer the world and be the biggest of anything.”

His grandsons, Jordon and Josh Johnson, are most likely to be seen working on the farm, and Jordon hopes at least one of his five children will see an interest in continuing the legacy.

Jordon Johnson, 34, works as the farm manager at the orchard and said although the job comes with responsibility, he is grateful he has had his grandfather teach him what works and what doesn’t.

“He has been able to tell me where he’s messed up and what doesn’t work and to have that wealth of information to learn from,“he said.

He said he never left the farm to pursue other career opportunities partly because he has never wanted to do anything else and partly because he loves working with family — most of the time.

“If you work with family.if you fight, you gotta make up,” he said. “You’re here through thick and thin, and you see everyone at work as well in your personal life. The lines are blurred here.”

Danny Johnson wants his customers to feel a sense of belonging when they come to the farm.

“We want them to feel like they’re part of the family. If I met someone I hope they think it was worth meeting me. That’s what I hope,” he said.

The Peaks of Otter, Bedford County and the Johnson family were so charming and welcoming, one couple was hooked enough to move across state lines.

John Waff had a successful career in Raleigh when his wife, Kay, suggested a family vacation in the mountains instead of at the beach in 1984.

They found themselves at Elmo’s Rest, Danny Johnson’s childhood home turned vacation rental, and woke up every morning to Nancy Johnson dropping off that day’s newspaper as well as a treat such a pickled beets, eggs or apple butter.

That vacation turned into another and another, until the Waff family found themselves at Elmo’s Rest eight or nine times a year.

John and Kay Waff said they “fell in love” with the area and decided to move three miles away from the orchard in 1988.

The couple now lives in the town of Bedford but John Waff said he wouldn’t move back to Raleigh even if he won the lottery.

“Had that trip not been so enjoyable, we probably wouldn’t have come back,” he said.

Parts of the operation have grown and some have shrunk, such as opening a winery — Peaks of Otter Winery — in 1995, and inviting the public to come pick their own fruit in the 1980s, while cutting back on packing apples and selling to wholesalers.

Until about 1970, the Johnsons were shipping their apples to grocery stores, which at the time, didn’t care too much about the different shapes and sizes of the apples, but eventually it got more complicated, Danny Johnson said.

“They began demanding one certain size and ahalf-dozen different types of apples,” he said. “So we decided to concentrate strictly on growing fruit and selling to packers.”

The “pick your own” business boomed after Johnson saw the “doggonedest” hail storm in the 1980s.

“I went from trying to find someone to buy 50,000 bushels of apples to trying to find 50,000 people to buy bushels of apples, so we were stuck with apples and we wanted to sell, so we were doing anything we could to get rid of apples,” he said.

Thus, they launched the “pick your own” side of the business, which continues today.

Some apples just cannot be grown on the mountain, he said.

The best apples to grow in Central Virginia are Pippin and Winesap apples, he said, but definitely not Honeycrisp.

“That was the biggest mistake I ever made, was trying to plant those,” he said. “They are so susceptible to fire blight. I haven’t been able to get rid of it hardly. I was so mad I pulled the trees up and took them to the animals and gave them to the goats.”

Working on the farm for almost 80 years, Danny Johnson has endured both good and bad weather. In 1955, the apple trees were in full bloom when a freeze nearly put him out of business.

“It wasn’t but one tree on the farm that had apples on it,” he said. “We went to different areas that had apples and bought them back and sold them on the street. There were quite a few times we thought we wouldn’t make it. When we first started doing Red Delicious, in the late 1950s, we didn’t have apples coming in for a while, I thought I was gonna lose it all.”

For Bedford resident Andy Dooley, growing up in the Blue Ridge Mountains was a privilege, and although he moved into a different part of the county, he treasures his memories spending time at the orchard as a young boy.

Dooley’s father, Jake, would go into the orchard during the fall and help prune the trees after his day job at Webster Brick and his mother, Lola, would help pack apples into crates in the packing shed. The two worked there for about 10 or 15 years until the mid-1970s.

“When I got home from school, I would get dressed and walk down a creek bottom and would go to the packing shed and stay with my mother until she got done working until 5:30 p.m. or 6 p.m. during the apple season,” Dooley said.

He offered congratulations to Johnson and his wife, Nancy, for keeping up their traditions in farming and agriculture.

“It’s been very interesting to watch him develop and adjust to the industry,” he said. “It brings back a lot of memories going up there. It’s nice to go back and remember that I grew up in the mountains and I think those mountains are very important to our foundation.”


Information from: The News & Advance, http://www.newsadvance.com/

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