Know Your Farmer: Patricia Johnson

How did you get into farming? Most people have short answers. “I’m a fifth generation rancher”. Or “My great grandparents homesteaded here” Or even, “I married into it.” I envy their short answers. But I have a short answer of my own. “It’s complicated.” 

I guess I’d have to say that my ag story starts on the streets of Philadelphia, with my great grandfather’s livery stable, and on to my dad’s parents, who, during the depression, raised hogs and chickens in their middle class urban backyard, and to my mom, who knew the name of every delivery horse that went up and down Hatfield Street, and to my dad, who learned to hunt, and learned to hate it, during his time in New Mexico, culling deer with the CCC. 

My brothers were 8 and 11 by the time I made my somewhat unexpected, but not totally unwelcome arrival into the world. And my family entered what in retrospect could safely be called our Appalachian Poverty stage, complete with coal heat, a milk cow, and squirrel for dinner. And while my mother was baking bread, tending animals, sewing our clothes, and knitting our socks and mittens, I was basically left to fend for myself, though my older brothers were often unwillingly charged with my care. 

I somehow survived and thrived in a childhood that, had I subjected my own children to, would surely land me in jail –  unsupervised play, ice skating alone, exploring the remains of a colonial aqueduct that ran through our farm. I was the infant who drank raw milk, the kindergartener who walked half a mile to the main road to catch the bus, the first-grader who drove a tractor, all the while enduring the precision delivery of taunts and abuses by my older brothers. (My family totally missed out on the whole only-girl-as-princess memo.)

Even at that early age, in that Pinterest-worthy childhood, I realized that the cool kids didn’t wear feedbag dresses, or eat liverwurst and ketchup sandwiches (even if every bit of it was homemade), and never had to pluck chickens. 

I learned how good I had it. I didn’t actually live at the bottom of a rock quarry, like one of my first-grade friends, and we had a brand new station wagon, ending the days of Mom, Dad and three kids in the front of the pick-up (though I still instinctively throw my arm out whenever I come to a sudden stop.) We had indoor plumbing, complete with a flush toilet. My dad’s skills as a diesel mechanic meant his talents were always in demand. He could build or fix anything, and never seemed to mind endless questions, and even encouraged my unladylike interest in things mechanical. 

And I learned how important oldest sons are in many farming operations, and how my oldest brother’s decision to go off to college, brought about a merciful end to a struggling farm.

Our family headed off to a small agricultural community in Ohio, my oldest brother somewhere along the line having been replaced by a younger brother, my dad heading up a maintenance terminal for regional trucking company.

Over the course of the next few years, our family transitioned from Hee-Haw to Masterpiece Theater. My adolescent and teen years spent showing hunters (Yes, I am in fact, a horse person), active in 4H and FFA throughout high school (I was one if the first female FFA members at my school), on various livestock and soil judging teams. 

Lacking any discernable direction or skills, I opted for the Army, and instead of travelling the world, ended up in Virginia, working on communications equipment. Four years later, I was a Department of Defense contractor, working on mainframe computers, and eventually on the first PCs and who knew that that whole internet thing would take off like it did? Or that I would meet and marry another farm-kid turned electronics-type. Or that we would buy a piece of land, and start running beef cattle? 

Twenty some odd years and six kids later, the DoD job is gone. The cow herd has grown from three cow-calf pairs to ninety – not a big operation, but big enough for us. Scott, my husband, still works public work, and I handle the day to day tasks with the cattle, and the kids as well – the 4H, the sports, the homework. 

Like all cow/calf operations (we sell most of our calves at about seven months old), we’re forage based, but by more actively managing our pastures, we’ve made our farm more profitable, and brought some added benefits to our land, our cattle and the waterways that run through our farm.Patricia Johnson Family

Though my parents sold our family farm when I was young, their farm legacy didn’t end. It continued through my family, and my children. And though I’ve never subjected my children to rabbit stew, hand-knitted socks or putting up loose hay, they’ll have an agricultural heritage as unique and as valuable and as treasured as mine is.”

About Patricia Johnson

Patty Johnson and her family raised beef cattle in central Virginia. She is a tolerable cook, and aspiring marathoner, and a past president of the Virginia Forage and Grassland Council.

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