Getting fresh produce onto the plates of hungry Napans is a labor of love for Ron and Lois Johnson, members of St. John’s Lutheran Church.
As volunteers for St. John’s Lutheran Church’s Mission Farm, the Johnsons are part of a core group charged with the operation’s upkeep. The farm — a small patch of acreage beside the church’s northwest Napa location — turns out thousands of pounds of organic beets, peppers, tomatoes and other earthy delights for the Napa Valley Food Bank each year.
Along with a handful of locals, including coordinator Holli Scheumann, the semi-retired Johnsons played a key role in establishing the Mission Farm about four years ago.
“There was a group of us that got together and talked about it and it started out as a really small (project),” said Ron Johnson, the man behind the farm’s sprawling irrigation infrastructure. “The ground we’re cultivating right now was a dumping ground for construction debris, so it took us a while to get the rocks, concrete and steel out of the dirt.”
These days, keeping the farm running smoothly remains a serious operation for the Johnsons and their fellow volunteers, and the married couple is known to bring their work home with them. A garage full of growing lights and more than 100 sprightly seedlings raised an eyebrow or two in the pair’s quiet neighborhood.
“Our neighbor came over and asked if we were growing marijuana,” said a laughing Lois Johnson, adding that her pepper seedlings are coming along nicely.
Work at the Mission Farm is never done. The planting, harvesting and weeding doesn’t reach a feverish pitch until summertime, but Johnson said he pulled 52 pounds of beets with a local high school volunteer on a recent Saturday. Johnson, who occasionally helps with planting but said his irrigation duties “keep me pretty busy,” said burying main water shut-off valves for the Mission Farm’s manual watering system was another of his recent undertakings.
Lois, meanwhile, known for her passionate distaste for Bermuda grass, is big on weeding.
The Johnsons, who married nine years ago and have both lived in Napa since the 1970s, say few things are as rewarding as their work at the Mission Farm.
“There’s such a need now in the community for the Food Bank,” said Ron Johnson, adding that “there’s a lot of satisfaction” in helping to ease the burden for Napans in need.
Although the Mission Farm leads the pack when it comes to local produce donations to the Food Bank, Napa’s need remains great, he said. Johnson recalled a summer day when the Mission Farm’s donation was the only one the Food Bank got.
“We came in with about 50 pounds of tomatoes,” he said. “It’s all that we had, but we had a good amount and people were just grateful to get them.”
Lois Johnson, a retired Kaiser phlebotomist who with her husband works part-time installing appliances for Sears, said the three hours she and her husband spend laboring at the Mission Farm on Saturday mornings are well spent.
“Seeing all of the lines of people when you pass them with these fruits and vegetables at the Food Bank when we go there is just wonderful,” Lois said. “This is 100 percent fresh (and) it’s just for them.”
Keeping the Mission Farm productive, however, comes with its share of snafus. The farm’s dozen resident chickens, whose eggs are also donated to the Food Bank, catch the wanderlust bug now and again, the Johnsons said.
“They get out all the time and you have to herd them back,” Ron Johnson said, smiling.“Getting 12 chickens back in the coop by yourself is challenging.”
Then there was the great garlic thievery of 2010, they said. It happened right around harvest time, when the bulbs were ripe for the picking. The garlic bandits wiped out the Mission Farm’s entire supply.
Johnson, a licensed plumbing contractor and retired chief of plant operations who worked for Richmond’s Department of Public Health, said missteps like these are hardly enough to discourage the Mission Farm volunteers. It’s a community affair, with everyone from Boy Scout Troop 83 to church members, high school students and neighbors shouldering the work.
“I like working with the volunteers,” he said. “I just love working in the garden, and Lois does too.”