Friends at Johnny’s Selected Seeds

Friends at Johnny’s Selected Seeds

I’ve been back to work at Johnny’s Selected Seeds since the start of the new year, and while it’s always a little bittersweet to have to work off the farm, I’m really very happy to be able to work for this company.

jss friends
Tom Eickenberg had been with Johnny’s since 1990-something and was a fixture in the company; here we are at his retirement party sending him off to his own gardens and homesteading ambitions. We miss you Tom!

This is my 2nd year working in their Call Center in Fairfield, Maine. I answer the phone, take seed orders, and answer lots of questions about crop varieties, tools, growing information and much more. It’s largely seasonal employment through the winter months, which allows me to spend more time during the spring and summer working for Runamuk and growing my farm and apiary. I feel really fortunate to have been able to find work in my chosen field while I pursue this farming dream of mine, and even more fortunate that they hired me back after my first year.

Following my divorce last winter I was quite a mess when I began working for Johnny’s. When you get divorced you no longer get to spend unlimited time with your children. Having been a work-from-home-mom for more than a decade I was accustomed to being with and caring for my 2 boys and the farm. Add to that the fact that the land my farm was set up on belonged to my ex-husband’s family and I was suddenly without my kids, my farm, and my critters, thrust into a desk-job in an office 5 days a week, and I had days when I was nothing more than a tearful lump on the couch, unable and unwilling to move. I had days when I was morose, dejected and moody at work─even a few days when I was in tears in my cubicle, doing my damndest to hold it together but not succeeding very well. I didn’t care what I looked like and my attitude sucked. But I found more than just a job a Johnny’s. I found friendship.

Friends at Johnny’s

holiday fun at johnny's
Lots of office shenanigans keep things fun and interesting! As a fellow shenanigator I fit right in!

I found like-minded people at Johnny’s; people like me who have a passion for gardening, for producing their own food by raising chickens or pigs or sheep (or any number of types of critters). People who are interested in living more sustainably upon the Earth, who recycle, use green energy, and practice organic gardening methods.

The employees at Johnny’s are excited about the local food movement, many of them are farmers and gardeners themselves, they’re members of local CSA programs or they’re the farmers growing those local CSA shares.

They’re creative people, enthusiastic and passionate about life, caring and supportive. And I’ve found friendship there. True friends who never fail to provide me with a kind word, a sympathetic ear, or even just a reassuring hug. They lifted me up, supported me and somehow made those bad days more bearable.

A little more about Johnny’s Selected Seeds

johnnys selected seedsThe company was established in 1973 by Rob Johnston, and moved to Maine in 1974 where things really began to take root on the 120-acre farm in Albion, at what is now known as the Johnny’s Selected Seeds research farm. In the early days the offices and indeed most of the facilities were set up in the barn, but since then the company has grown to 3 locations: the farm, the seed warehouse, and the call center and corporate offices located in Fairfield (that’s where I work!).

Johnny’s was one of the 9 original signers of the Safe Seed Initiative in 2000, and they still uphold that pledge: that they will not knowingly buy, sell, or trade genetically-engineered seeds or plants. They do not sell any GMO seed. That’s become very important to folks, and rightly so─it’s very important to me too! Like so many others who are learning about our food and the industrial system, we’re learning about these genetically modified crops and we’re concerned. I can’t tell you how many calls I get asking specifically whether or not Johnny’s has any genetically-modified seed.

If you’re not familiar with the GMO controversy, you can take a look at this article I put together back in 2012.

On a totally separate note, but still interesting and important to know about Johnny’s Selected Seeds, is the fact that it’s an employee-owned company. In June of 2012 the company took investment from it’s employees, who bought out Rob Johnston, taking ownership of the company. Johnny’s offers great benefits options as well as profit sharing, and as a result the people who work for the company are truly vested in their work, it’s their livelihood, and their future.

I’ve made friends!

Johnny’s hires farmers and gardeners first. They hire a lot of extra help during the height of the season. It’s ideal for people like me who have farms of their own, or who work for a farm, where the spring and summer months are crazy-busy, but once the farm is put to bed for the winter things are quiet. For many farmers it’s these seasonal gigs that allow us to be able to farm at all. But it’s not a selfless act on Johnny’s part to hire these farmers as seasonal employees. Especially in the call center they need knowledgeable people who can help a spectrum of customers─from the beginning gardener to the larger scale commercial grower.

I haven’t worked in all parts of the company, so I can’t speak for the other departments (ie-shipping, seed packing, the farm, etc.), but in the call center there’s a wide spectrum of knowledge available. I feel comfortable there, accepted. My colleagues in the call center are interesting and exciting, and they inspire me to do interesting and exciting things too. In fact, they’ve inspired me to put together this series of articles that I’ve dubbed “The Johnny’s Series”.

The Johnny’s Series

It’s something I’ve been thinking about since last year─I wanted to pick the brains of my colleagues in the call center. It’s a huge opportunity to learn from these farmers and gardeners. These are people with their fingers on the pulse of Maine’s agricultural movement; younger people like me who are up and coming farmers, older folks who have spent their lives living the life we want, and established farmers in varying stages of their careers. I couldn’t pass it up so I pestered friends and colleagues in the office, and I got some of them to agree to help out with this series.

Here’s what I asked:

  1. What is your favorite crop/critter to grow/raise? Why?
  2. What is your favorite or go-to tool? Why?
  3. What resource(s) have you found most helpful along your journey as a farmer/gardener?
  4. What one thing do you wish you’d known when you first started out?
  5. What do you see as the biggest challenge facing Maine farmers today?

Cultivating friendships

friends at johnny's
Fine friends at Johnny’s Selected Seeds!

I’m in a different place this year─both physically and emotionally. I’ve worked through the emotional turmoil that divorce and starting over brings to your life. Things with Runamuk are looking really good, I’ve got a routine with my kids, and a work schedule with Johnny’s that allows me to still be on the farm 3 days a week. Come May I’ll be at Johnny’s only 2 days a week and primarily on the farm through the summer. Finances are still tight, but I’m gaining and I have some big plans for the 2016 season (more about that later).

Over the course of the last year or so it’s been friendships that have sustained me through some of my darkest days. Friends like those I’ve found at Johnny’s, and those I’ve cultivated through the Somerset Beekeepers and the Madison Farmers’ Market. I’ve felt alone in the past, but now I know I only need reach out and any number of beautiful people will be there for me. And I would do the same for any of them in a heartbeat too, if it meant I could give back even a little of what they have given me. To me it’s become more important than ever before to cultivate my friendships; I’m grateful to have these people in my life and I want them to know it!

And so I’m really excited about “the Johnny’s series”! It’s going to be an interesting read for farmers and gardeners alike. I’ll publish an article a week over the course of the next month to share with you what the employees that make up Johnny’s Selected Seeds had to say in response to my interview questions. Stay tuned folks!

Share your thoughts, comments or questions!

Runamuk Acres Conservation Farm