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Tiny farm thrives with specialty crop, creative sales

Anne Knowles
aknowles@nnbw.biz

If a book of Nevada farming firsts is ever written, a chapter should be devoted to Custom Gardens in Silver Springs.

The 26-year-old farm, owned and operated by Virginia and Ray Johnson, received the state’s first organic farm certificate in 1998. It was certainly one of the first to offer community-supported agriculture, or CSA, subscriptions, launching its membership program almost 20 years ago. And it’s the state’s first and only commercial grower of baby Hawaiian ginger, a tender variant that can be consumed in its entirety.

The Johnsons also offer an innovative Work for Food program. A handful of volunteers each commit to work the farm five hours a week and in exchange take home the same bushel of produce the farm’s CSA subscribers receive. The volunteers, who over the years have been bankers, teachers, even an assistant district attorney, get some exercise and a break from their everyday jobs and the Johnsons get some needed help working their 2.5-acre farm.

The Johnsons started up Custom Gardens in 1988 on land that has been owned by Virginia Johnson’s family since 1953. For years, they worked farmer’s markets when there were only two in northern Nevada, she says.

“Farmer’s markets are a good source of income, but if you’re a mom-and-pop operation, it means one day of prep, one day at the markets, which is two days you haven’t tended the farm,” says Ray Johnson.

In 1995, the couple attended a conference in San Francisco, where they heard about CSA subscriptions.

“These crazy people back east were doing CSA,” says he says. “It was prepaid. That helps the farmer get seed in the ground.”

So the Johnsons started talking up the idea at farmer’s markets and casual house parties they held around the area.

Today Custom Gardens has about 30 subscribers, as many as the farm can handle, says Ray Johnson, who each week during the growing season gets a box of seven to 11 items of produce to supplement the meals of two adults and two small children.

“For some it’s more than enough, some split with another family,” says Ray Johnson. “For others it’s not enough, but that’s mostly juicers. Juicers want quantity.”

The couple also sells ginger online through localharvest.com, a nationwide network of small farms and at Reno’s Whole Foods and Great Basin Food Co-op, which also carries some of the farm’s other produce.

The Johnsons started growing ginger, the farm’s leading crop, after reading about another farm cultivating it.

“Years ago we read an article in a trade publication about a farm in Massachusetts that grew in Hawaiian ginger in hoop houses,” says Ray Johnson. “We were looking for a specialty crop to grow.”

The couple also operates a stand at their farm where every Saturday during the growing season customers can buy a wide range of vegetables, such as squash, kale, tomatoes, and fruit, including peaches, nectarines, table grapes and blackberries, as well as honey produced from its hives.

“We produced 240 pounds of honey last year,” says Ray Johnson.