How to Start an Organic Farm with Joe Johnston of Agritopia
Joe Johnston's Arizona roots run deep. His parents planted the seed in 1960 with the purchase of a 160-acre farm in rural Gilbert, and Johnston's mark on the East Valley has been flourishing ever since.
Agritopia founder Joe Johnston shares some fresh picked organic tomatoes.
As Johnston walks visitors through the much-transformed property, an urban farm nestled inside a housing development known as Agritopia, he notes the repurposed remnants of the farm's past: the tractor shed turned coffee shop and childhood home that's been turned into Joe's Farm Grill. (Johnston also owns Joe's Real BBQ and Liberty Market in downtown Gilbert.)
Outside of these repurposed artifacts, Agritopia is an almost-unrecognizable evolution of its former self, a byproduct of Johnston's business-minded innovation and his openness to community ideas.
In this green development, the urban farm isn't just the focal point of the community, it's the fuel. In addition to providing communal plots for residents to grow their own organic produce, Johnston, his head farmer Erich Schultz, and their staff also use their year round harvest to supply CSAs, farmers markets, breweries, and other local establishments.
Katie Johnson The Agritopia staff work year-round harvesting organic produce for CSAs, farmers markets, and local businesses
Of course, that harvest also is organic, because Johnston really wouldn't have it any other way. "The sin of greed has negatively impacted the food system. The desire to make things cheaper and make a little more money doing it has a bad effect in people's health and society, and if we can redeem it I'm all for it."
But growing organic and being labeled as organic are two separate things. While Johnston and his team have been using the same techniques since 2000, it wasn't until they received their USDA certification years later that they could truly call themselves "organic."
It started from the ground up because "healthy soil is foundational to organic gardening," says Johnston. "After that, the plants will really take care of themselves." To create healthy soil, Agritopia uses its own organic compost, which puts organic matter back into the soil. Johnston notes that this is particularly important in Arizona, as hot weather tends to deplete matter in the soil.
Those who don't have the time or resources to produce their own mulch or compost should use bags labeled "OMRI-certified," which stands for Organic Material Research Institute and can be found at basic gardening retailers. As a general rule for organic certification, farmers should use OMRI-certified products across the board,;this includes fertilizers and pesticides.