Bill Johnson was always intrigued by farming. At a young age he liked working around tractors and large equipment, and all his life he’s treasured the idea of planting a seed and “watching it grow into something.”
Still, Johnson came to farming by a little different route than some. Bill Johnson’s family has been working with the mechanics of tractors, automobiles, lawn mowers and groundskeeping equipment for nearly 100 years — maybe longer.
Growing up, Johnson worked at the garage and equipment business owned by his father and uncle during the summers. “I guess I inherited an affinity for mechanical stuff,” he says.
That affinity runs deep. His grandfather on his mother’s side, Clinton Oliver Barnes, who started the equipment business in 1916, used to pick up Ford Model T’s shipped by rail in boxes from the train station, which he would finish assembling in his garage for dealers to sell.
• A background in mechanics led Bill Johnson into farming.
• Johnson’s entry into farming in 1977 was met by his introduction to sicklepod.
• He paired his love of mechanics and love of farming in two businesses.
After college Johnson went to work for the state of North Carolina, eventually heading up the landscaping division in the Department of Transportation before he retired. All the years he worked for the state, he also farmed part time.
He started in 1977, when a farmer traded in an Oliver 1650 tractor at his family’s Rock Ridge, N.C., Oliver dealership. Johnson had been talking about farming for a long time, so his father, Paul Johnson, bought the tractor. The family owned a small farm in nearby Johnston County with 30 acres of cleared land. They never did any farming themselves, but they had tenant farmers growing tobacco.
“The tenants continued to grow tobacco on the farm, which was 4 or 5 acres back then,” Johnson explains. “The rest of the land I planted in soybeans. I remember Daddy saying that first year I had cut the land so many times that I wore the disk harrow out,” Johnson says, chuckling. “Apparently, I just loved to drive the tractor.”
‘Tied up’ in weeds
His first year had a bit of a rocky start. He suffered a terrible weed problem. “I pulled up one that was waist-high and brought it and showed it to people. Nobody around here knew what it was. Somebody finally said it was a partridge pea — actually, it was what people later called sicklepod. Nobody down here had ever seen sicklepod, but the farm was wrapped up in them.”
Johnson found out how big a problem he had when he began harvesting his soybeans. When he hired someone to pick the beans, he became concerned that there wasn’t anything going into the grain tank.
“I went to the house and called Daddy up and told him, ‘There’s something wrong with the combine.’ It was an Oliver combine the man was using, so Daddy brought a fellow out who knew a lot about Oliver combines. They went to the field and walked around and looked. They studied the combine and the soybeans. They talked it over. Finally, Daddy said, ‘Son, I hate to tell you this, but we see your problem.’
“What is it?” “ ‘You don’t have enough soybeans out here to prime the combine,’ he said.
“What a devastating blow to my farming!” Johnson exclaims, laughing. “There were so many weeds, there just weren’t any soybeans.” It wasn’t long after that before sicklepod began to spread all over the country. “It was probably the worst weed imaginable in a legume crop like soybeans,” Johnson says.
Pot luck for herbicides
Although Johnson asked a lot of people about it, in 1977 there just weren’t any good herbicides for sicklepod. A salesman for a chemical company told him Toxaphene, an insecticide, could kill it.
“That seemed off-base,” Johnson explains, “but it was true, Toxaphene would flat turn sicklepod black — and that was about the only thing at the time that would select them out of soybeans and kill them.”
Later on, effective new products like Classic and Blazer came along, but the first thing that dealt with sicklepod was an accident.
Although sicklepod is still a problem, it has been largely tamed in the years since. But the challenge of some weeds today is just as daunting as any weed problem has ever been. Knowing it can be resistant to glyphosate, Johnson keeps a close eye on Palmer amaranth and keeps it at bay in his fields by following preemergent and post-emergent herbicide programs from North Carolina State University’s weed specialist, Alan York.
With soybeans following wheat in Johnson’s rotation, York told him to spray his wheat late with Banvel, since it has soil activity with pigweed. “I think that helps quite a bit,” Johnson says.
Johnson raised 115 acres of wheat and 140 acres of soybeans this year. Next year it will be about the same. But while Johnson considers himself a part-time farmer, his effort is anything but part time. He soil-samples on grids and applies fertilizers with precision, using his own application equipment for spot work.
“Our soils are so variable, you can’t just take a bulk truck and apply it without having some terrible deficiencies. If you don’t GIS-sample [Geographical Information System sampling, using satellite information], you’re missing the boat.”
Over the years, he’s moved mainly to no-till and now gets his best crops that way. “No-till is definitely an innovation in terms of saving money and saving the soil,” he says. Such farming innovations come largely from one place.
“I really respect our farmers,” Johnson says. “America will be a difficult country to ever put down, as long as we’ve got our farmers. Frankly, America has the greatest farmers in the world. And right in this area, some of my neighbors are probably some of the best farmers in America.
“It is a big challenge to have a large farming operation and make it. You’ve got to deal with weather. You’ve got to deal with high inputs. It is like being in Las Vegas and spinning the roulette wheel.”
With such a thought process, it seems an even bigger mystery why a person with one successful career will take on a second as risky as farming. He does it because it’s a challenge — and because it’s fun. “I love technology,” Johnson says. “I hope I’m a little like my granddaddy, who was an innovator. He loved new things.
“And when it comes to farm equipment,” he adds, “most of the innovations you see don’t come out of boardroom or from an engineer sitting at a desk. Farmers come up with them.”
It is obvious Johnson loves tradition, too. He still has and uses that first tractor his father bought secondhand 34 years ago. Today, he farms exclusively with a fleet of about 10 Oliver tractors. He has two good friends, both of whom are great mechanics, who help him keep them running like new.