Johnsons generate produce, community hub

Letha Johnson is flanked by her son Greyson, 15, at left, and sister Kelli Campbell. Kelli's son by her side is Kevin Dean Campbell. Zinnia flowers are to the left of them, and sunflowers tower behind them. Masks are off momentarily for this photo. Photo by Pete Zamplas.
Letha Johnson is flanked by her son Greyson, 15, at left, and sister Kelli Campbell. Kelli’s son by her side is Kevin Dean Campbell. Zinnia flowers are to the left of them, and sunflowers tower behind them. Masks are off momentarily for this photo. Photo by Pete Zamplas.

By Pete Zamplas

Hendersonville – The Johnson Family Farms Fruit and Vegetable Store is a bustling center for purchasing produce, flowers and other goods and as a social hub in the restrictive pandemic.

The store/produce stand and U-pick farm is in its fifth season, opening in 2016. It is at Hendersonville’s edge, at the southeastern corner of Kanuga and Erkwood.

Johnson Family Farm: The Next Generation is on the sign. Its partners are three daughters of Kirby and Sheri Ledbetter Johnson, each in their thirties. They are eighth-generation area farmers, spanning parts of four centuries.

The sisters in order of age are Letha Johnson, Heather Johnson Price, and Kirbi “Kelli” Johnson Campbell. Kelli started the retail outlet, Heather joined last September, and now Letha is also full-time. Some of their spouses, eldest of their nine children and also relatives help.

Heather does the bookkeeping. She and/or Kelli often handle early shifts. They take turns buying products (i.e. meats, melons, Pimento cheese, elderberry syrup) at the WNC Farmers Market starting at 5:30 am, then drive goods to their stand.

The Johnsons sell products at the Mills River Farmers Market. Heather calls it “a second family.” Her daughter Reagan, 12, at age two was “in the back of the truck, handing out corn to people” at that market, Heather recalled. By age nine, Reagan made change and counted back money to customers. She helps the Johnsons’ ninth generation take root in farming.

Carol Jean Thomas, Kirby’s first cousin, opens and runs the register. Colton Brackett, Roberson JV football head coach and a 2010 East Henderson grad, is married to the sisters’ second cousin Lindsey. Colton lugs pre-ordered bags to customer cars. Heather said, “You can trust family” in the business. “They have our best interest in mind.”

Celebs; Produce

Online sales have tripled their usual volume during the pandemic, with customers picking up for more “contact-less” shopping, Kelli noted.

Letha has emerged as lead celebrity on the business’ Facebook page, in doing comical videos on the daily morning promotion of items at the stand. She calls it a friendly “shout out.” She takes after their father. Kirby once told The Tribune Papers he is a “happy-go-lucky jokester.”

She runs the Studio Capelli hair salon. Thus, she is used to chatting with customers. With Coronavirus restrictions on such businesses, she turned more to the family farming this year.

Right behind it are rows of vegetables and flowering plants, for harvest and customer self-picking. Patron are often curious “about what’s behind the building,” Heather said. “They enjoy seeing the growing process.”

Flower varieties in their fields include zinnia, dahlia, gladioli and sunflower. Kelli shows many of them, in a promo video on Facebook July 14. Bouquets are $5. If reserved a day ahead, staff can pick a bundle for the customer and have it ready for pickup.

In that video, Kelli also gave a veggie-fruit tour of the stand’s fresh local produce. That includes mangos, kiwi, berries, apples, oranges, lemons, lime, peaches, cherries; Cherokee Purple, Heirloom and other tomatoes, avocado, melons, beans, corn, beets, potatoes, carrots, onions, lettuce, cabbage, pickles, peppers, eggplants, zucchini, squash, cucumbers, okra and broccoli.

Fish (i.e. shrimp, scallops) from the coast is typically sold there on Fridays (often selling out early) and Saturdays. Eggs, coffee, milk, honey and crafts are also in the store.

Kirby and Sheri

Kirby Johnson is among the best-known farmers in the mountains. His father, Preston “Pete” Johnson, was a leading bean grower.

Kirby, in business since 1979, co-owns Flavor 1st Growers & Packers. He oversees its fields on 500 acres. Johnson’s Farm Produce, in the fertile Mills River Valley, includes U-pick fields. Kirby supplies supermarkets across the East and the family’s stand, growing a full line of Southern vegetables. 

Sheri is the family’s “rock,” Heather said. “When Dad went to Georgia for a season, she stepped in and played both mom and dad.” The family for years split time between Mills River and Homestead, FL, moving in growing seasons. The Johnsons fled the Irish Potato Famine to the U.S., in the 1840s. James Noble Johnson, the first of the Irish family in this area, began farming in Buncombe County in 1798.

His grandson Josiah Johnson (1884-1978), Kirby’s grandfather, opened the first stockyard in Henderson County in 1941 then a produce packing house and auction market off King Street.

The main lesson learned from their parents, Heather said, is “hard work and sacrifice pays off.” Letha and Kelli also cited work ethic as a gain.

Heather appreciates getting an early start into the family business. “Dad always included us,” she said. “When I was ten, we were responsible for a zucchini patch. We thinned plants, and space them apart. I picked, washed, and packed zucchini. It was pivotal to see the work from start to finish, and to see how much work goes into it.”

Heather is also proud that “our parents raised us to be independent, self-sufficient women. They gave us avenues to make money, to continue the family legacy and journey.”

The virus is a common topic customers bring up, Kelli said. The sisters “try to stay away from politics,” Heather said. “We try to be a positive, in everybody’s lives.”

The store is open 10-6 Tuesdays-Fridays, and 9-3 on Saturdays. For more info, call 450-9859.

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