St. Helena Island Small Farmer Sold on Conservation
by Amy O. Maxwell, SC NRCS Public Affairs and Outreach Specialist
Small Farmer Ben Johnson consults with
NRCS District Conservationist Diane Leone and Beaufort SWCD Manager Shelby Berry.
When Ben Johnson left his childhood home on St. Helena Island, South Carolina, in 1956 at the age of eighteen, he vowed that he would never come back, would never again drink milk, and wouldn’t be going to church on Sundays. He laughs about his stubbornness now, and although he didn’t stay away from the church for long after setting out on his own, he confirms, “I did stay true to my promise to not drink milk—at least for twenty years.” Johnson was asserting his independence from his parents, from life on the farm, and from the chores he dutifully performed during his childhood like milking the cows on his family’s farm each and every morning. From the Sea Islands of South Carolina, Johnson set out on a journey that would take him to a very different world. He wound up in New York City. “That’s where the jobs were, so that’s where I went,” explains Johnson. He worked as a welder, got married (and is still married after 47 years), and had his first son in 1968. It was then that he realized that New York City was not the ideal place to raise a child, plus his aging parents needed his assistance, so he made his way back South. Still not ready for farm life, he worked for the government, until one day his father asked him to tend to some of the idle farmland on their property. Johnson reluctantly gave in and purchased a tractor, he says, “just to do a little tidying up around the farm.” But, he admits he started to enjoy working on that tractor, and next thing he knew, he was buying horses. “I always loved horses, so I purchased one, and here I am today, working a farm again.” Johnson farms primarily to feed family and friends, but he is committed to protecting soil and water quality, and does all that he can to ensure he farms with conservation in mind.
Johnson worked with both NRCS and SWCD to apply for financial and technical assistance through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). He praised former Small Farmer Liaison Wilfred Pace for helping him understand the program application process, and the benefits that would result from his participation. “The conservationists that I worked with were very motivating, and their hearts are in their work, which inspired me to do the right thing.” He also worked with Soil Conservationist Antron Williams, District Conservationist Diane Leone, Grassland Specialist David Findley, and Beaufort SWCD Director Shelby Berry. He also thanked the Penn Center for their outreach efforts to small and underserved farmers.
Johnson’s conservation plan included fencing, micro irrigation installation, planting cover crops, and implementing record keeping into his routine. He says, “At first, I was very reluctant to keep records, and did not really understand why I needed to do that.” Johnson is now a fan of recordkeeping, and admits he does not know how he would be successful without it. In fact, he has been a great advocate for conservation and EQIP and is spreading the word about the benefits to other small farmers in the Lowcountry of South Carolina. “It’s famers like Ben that are our best advertising, because they talk to their friends, sell the programs, and really are the best ambassadors we could ask for,” explained Leone.
Johnson surveys his pastures with great pride, and smiles as he talks about watching his grandkids and how much they enjoy the farm. “If you get kids interested in farming at an early age, it gets into their blood, and they have a true appreciation.” He also swears that farming keeps him young, as Johnson doesn’t look a day over 60. “This is the good life!” he exclaims. “It will keep you young.” When asked about a typical day, he proudly reports, “I stay here on my farm, and I don’t waste money on gas driving from home to work. I grow all my own food and provide for my family and friends.” Johnson has it all figured out in terms of the good life and what makes him happy, but he admits, “It took me 47 years to figure out this is where I wanted to be.” Now, the young man who left this farm back in 1956, determined not to return, loves the place with a passion and is proud to call it home.