AFTER 47 YEARS ROB JOHNSTON RETIRES FROM ‘JOHNNY’S SELECTED SEEDS.’ In 1973, 22-year-old Rob Johnston began his seed venture on a farm in New Hampshire. Two years later he moved his nascent operation to Ben & Ariel Wilcox’s organic Peacemeal Farm in Dixmont, Maine. That move began Rob’s and Johnny’s Selected Seeds’ enduring and uninterrupted deep commitment to Maine. Over the decades Rob became a respected seed breeder, organic farmer and business entrepreneur. Johnny’s pioneering dive into supplying the seed needs of heretofore neglected small vegetable farmers was both revolutionary and profitable. It is no exaggeration to say that Johnny’s was instrumental in fueling the future local food movement.
We purchased our first seed from Rob in 1975. Thirty years ago we sold our first organic Maine Certified Seed Potatoes to Johnny’s Selected Seeds. For most of the twenty-five years Jim served on the MOFGA Certification Committee beginning in the mid 1980s, he worked with Rob who was Chair.
In the early 2000s, after great success had been achieved and as Johnny’s was ramping up towards yet more significant growth – and vastly increased administrative responsibilities – Rob decided it was time to sell the company. In a move which offered insight into Rob’s integrity and his commitment to Maine and his loyal co-workers, he attached to the sale the requirement that Johnny’s MUST not be moved away from Maine. This stipulation in effect created a poison pill and dissuaded interested competitors from afar who would have loved to have acquired Johnny’s and roll its iconic title into a distant portfolio. In time the best option floated to the surface and that was to enter an employee buyout. In a very involved and painstaking procedure, that ownership transition began in 2006 and was successfully completed in 2012. Johnny’s Selected Seeds is now a 100% employee-owned company and offers substantial benefits to its employee-owners. The last figure we heard a few years ago is that Johnny’s annual sales were at that time $42 Million.
Tuesday was Rob’s last day as he officially ended duties and stepped down from the Board of Directors. Tuesday evening a celebratory tribute for Rob and his legacy was held at Thomas College in Waterville. Caleb and Jim attended. So did one hundred Johnny’s employees,also Johnny’s Board members (including Agrarian Elders Norbert Kungl and Jack Algiere), and Johnny’s Tool Inventors/Advisors Agrarian Elders Eliot Coleman & Barbara Damrosch. Also in attendance was Peacemeal Farm’s Ben Wilcox who later became a Johnny’s employee.
Rob and his wife, Janika Eckert (also an accomplished seed breeder), own a house in France and have been spending increasing amounts of time there. They also share intensive bicycling as another passion enjoyed together. This article in ‘Downeast Magazine’ offers good background on Rob and his phenominal achievements with Johnny’s Selected Seeds. Caleb, Jim & Megan
Rooted in the counterculture of the 1970s, Johnny’s Selected Seeds is flourishing with the locavore movement.