The Bridgepoint Run Farm in Montgomery has struggled to attract customers in recent years, but this season the farmstand sells out almost every day. On weekends, owner-operator Dale Johnson and his family have to restock produce frequently throughout the day to keep up with demand.
Increased sales have come as a result of the pandemic, Johnson believes. Wary of crowded grocery stores, customers are drawn to Bridgepoint’s self-service roadside stand.
Johnson has spent the last few months searching for a manageable work-life balance for himself and his family as they increase production. He has had difficulty finding consistent help in the past, and although many community members have reached out offering to help, he has kept the farm’s workforce to about 10 family members to limit the risk of coronavirus transmission.
The fifth-generation family farm has been practicing regenerative agriculture and feeding its community since 1928, long before the sustainable and local agriculture movements became trendy, Johnson said.
Johnson took over farm operations in 2015, a year after graduating from Penn State University with a degree in agriculture business management and an agronomy minor. He had been working for a chemical and fertilizer company right out of college when he realized his passion was sustainable agriculture, so he promptly quit his job and returned to his farming roots.
“Soil is a living organism. It needs to be treated well,” Johnson said. “My job [at the chemical company] showed me what not to do with my farm.”
Johnson found inspiration in his grandmother Charlotte’s work — she grew tomatoes, canned them, and sold the extra ones at the end of the farm road. He decided to build off of her business.
There has always been a fine line between being regenerative — meaning keeping the nutrient cycle on the farm — and being profitable. But, for Johnson, farming isn’t about making a profit.
“I do it because I love it,” he said. “Money is trying to drive this country and we see where that’s going.” Johnson has built two high tunnels to increase the farm’s efficiency and is adding more every year. He works as a plumber with his father, and is studying to earn his master plumber certification in the fall and winter. Most family members also work additional jobs off the farm.
Farm sales are almost exclusively retail sales, and all of Johnson’s customers live within about a five-mile radius of the farm, which is located at the intersection of Bridgepoint Road and Dead Tree Run Road in the Belle Mead section of Montgomery. Johnson said he aims to “feed the neighborhood,” and offers free delivery within the five-mile radius he serves. He credits his ability to serve an ultra-local customer base in part to the lack of competing farms in the area, as many nearby farmers have sold their land to developers in recent years.
Half of the farm’s 80 acres are pastures. Johnson raises 15 beef cows per year on a grass and hay diet, and practices rotational grazing. He said in past years, it has been tough to move beef. This year, there is a long waiting list for the farm’s meat variety packs.
Johnson describes his products as “food my family and I want to eat.” He said he grows his produce “pretty much chemical-free,” making exceptions only when absolutely necessary, and fertilizes the soil with compost and manure produced on the farm. Despite meeting many of the requirements, Johnson has chosen not to apply for USDA organic certification.
“I don’t agree with all the rules and regulations of USDA certified organic, and I know a lot of organic farms who aren’t doing things up to standard,” Johnson said. “I know I sound like a hippie, but I don’t need the government coming in here and putting a stamp on my work.” There are ways to use chemicals sustainably and sparingly, he said.
With fewer and fewer Americans living and working on farms, Johnson sees a growing disconnect between consumers and producers. Rather than slapping a label on his food, he said he tries to “really show people what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.” People are generally open to learning about the farm’s practices, he said.
Farm work is hard work, Johnson said. Running a small farm that sells directly to its local customer base poses financial challenges, and working with family can sometimes be difficult. But when Johnson gathers with his whole family around the dinner table for his grandmother’s cooking after a long day out in the fields, he remembers why he loves his work so much.