Other than his family, nothing is more important to John David Johnson than crops, cattle, farmers and veterans.
He has been involved with the first three for most of his life. With his new position under the West Virginia National Guard, he gets to add the fourth.
As the agricultural career specialist with the West Virginia National Guard’s Patriot Guardens initiative, Johnson gets to teach, demonstrate and encourage both veteran and civilian farmers.
“Agriculture is the backbone of this area,” Johnson said. “Food security is vital to the infrastructure and security of this country. We cannot stand strong as a nation if we cannot feed ourselves. Helping our military personnel learn these skills is especially rewarding.”
That passion for agriculture has guided Johnson throughout his life. He came to Jackson County from Georgia several years ago to serve as the West Virginia University extension agent for the county.
“I came and worked with the junior fair which immediately is, in my opinion, the best in the state,” he said. “We have the best youth programs in the state here too. A lot of people care about the kids, and it shows. Our two high school FFA programs are outstanding.”
In his job as extension agent, Johnson introduced programs that were geared towards expanding and supporting local farms.
Johnson said the key to sustainable agriculture is diversification.
“The land isn’t flat here,” he said. “You have to make as much profit per acre as you possibly can. Farming is a livelihood that can be profitable.”
As a career specialist for this area which includes the Western Conservation District, Johnson works with his team to offer classes on a variety of subjects.
There is a class on the third Thursday of every month at the Jackson County Armed Forces Reserve Center at Millwood. Each is open to all members of the military and their families, but the general public can attend as well.
On Thursday, Feb. 17, a Beef and Brambles workshop will be offered. The unusual title refers to beef cattle and blackberry and raspberry production.
“We will be talking about increasing production rates and blood tests in cattle,” Johnson said. “Ray Breagal from Tumbling 8 Farms will present that portion. You have to make sure your calves survive and this class gives knowledge on that. For berries, you’ve got to control their growth and manage those brambles.”
Johnson explained that normally no registration is required for the sessions, but since dinner will be served, a head count is needed.
“We don’t want to run out of food,” he said with a smile. “So contact us to register for this one.”
Each Wednesday, ‘Lunch and Learns’ are offered at Coonskin Park in Charleston.
While the central office for the Patriot Guardens is located at Coonskin Park, Johnson works out of the Order of the Eastern Star building in Millwood.
“That’s our home base for this area,” he said. “Connie Dewhurst, who was an agriculture teacher here, and I work from there. The other team members, Melissa Stewart, Brad Cochran and Scott Byers, are headquartered at Coonskin. We work great together, all bringing certain strengths.”
One other factor makes working in the historic building special for Johnson.
“My grandma was a member of the Eastern Star,” he said.
Having previously worked with several Patriot Guardens personnel made Johnson’s transition from extension agent easier.
“I already had a working relationship with a lot of these people,” he said. “Much of what we’re doing is what I focused on as an extension agent.”
Johnson wants to continue collaborating with farmers to develop high tunnels. These are structures that allow protection for plants and extending the growing season.
A ‘woods to farm’ program is a particular interest to Johnson.
“This helps the farmer see wooded areas be utilized,” he said. “We want to teach how to grow mushrooms and ginseng. A lot of farms in West Virginia have a lot of woods and those can be profitable.”
One program that is extremely valuable to local farmers began as a cooperative effort with the Jackson County Commission. Johnson wrote several grants in his tenure as county agent and the commission functioned as fiscal agent.
The Jackson County Agricultural Enhancement Program will continue under Johnson in his new job. Large equipment such as cow shuts, no-till drills and a 300-gallon pasture sprayer are available to borrow.
“Most small farm owners can’t afford this type of equipment,” Johnson said. “This is such a wonderful opportunity to be more efficient. Since they’re mobile, they can be used in far more areas. Since the county officially owns the equipment, the commissioners are allowing me to continue with the program.”
Efficiency and diversity are key words for Johnson.
“Finding the best use for the land, trying new things, is so important,” he stated. “Being a good steward and using efficient methods will certainly help the bottom profit line.”
When spring comes, Johnson said there are plans to develop the land around the National Guard Armory. High tunnels and developing a water system are two projects, along with planting more fruit trees.
“We also want to offer instruction and demonstration on building a conservation fence to keep the woods out of the pastures,” he said. “Rotational grazing is another topic we’re interested in exploring. With 50 acres to potentially work with, the possibilities are endless.”
Working with youth is still a passion for Johnson. He recently taught 133 students in the Ripley High School FFA and agriculture department about soil.
“A lot of these kids had military family,” he said. “It was another way to further our mission of supporting our military and their families. I’m looking forward to doing the same at Ravenswood High.”
Response to the programs offered through the Patriot Guardens initiative has been high for active military, Johnson said.
“We are working to get more of our veterans and their families involved,” he said. “We can’t enough that family members are welcome and encouraged stress to take part.”
With all the options and possibilities available through grants and partnership with businesses and other agencies, Johnson says he is optimism about agriculture in West Virginia.
“It’s constantly changing and growing,” he said. “What the consumer wants is always evolving so we have to be willing to learn and diversify, which is becoming one of my favorite words.”
Johnson is also enthusiastic about Jackson County.
“Even though I wasn’t raised up here, it’s where my wife, daughter and I are establishing our roots,” he said. “I have a farm in Kenna and I raise cattle. I know that it takes hard work and time. What enticed me to this job with the National Guard is being able to stay in this community.”
Johnson is always happy to talk anything related to farming.
“I’m always here if anyone wants farming advice or has ideas for classes and programs,” he said. “I did that as an extension agent, and I haven’t changed a bit. I will still be volunteering at the junior fair or wherever I’m needed. This is my home and I love it here.”
For information, contact Johnson at email@example.com or call 662-202-2035. To register for the Beef and Brambles seminar, contact Brad Cochran at firstname.lastname@example.org.