Feb 15, 2008
Montana Market is Growing Into a Popular Destination

Greg Johnson went to New Zealand for six weeks back in 2006. In between all the golfing, fishing, talking and wandering around he did, he managed to pick up a few ideas to improve his farm market.

He also learned that his Montana farm is world famous – sort of. He met a woman from Wyoming who also was vacationing in New Zealand. She knew who he was and had been on his farm. It was a strange coincidence.

Johnson visited a few farmers’ markets during his trip and talked to some of the managers. He was impressed with what he saw. New Zealand markets have a lot more variety to offer, including dairy and meat items. Eggs and venison are really big over there, along with fish and organic pork. The people are incredibly friendly, too. You can make a day of shopping at a market there, he said.

Perhaps the biggest idea he picked up in New Zealand was to move his produce closer to the road. His business, Laurel Farmers Market, is on Highway 212 in Laurel, Mont., a busy artery between nearby Billings and Wyoming and Yellowstone National Park to the southwest.

People in the area know his farm well. Farm markets are growing in popularity in Montana, but there still aren’t that many. An established operation like Johnson’s has an advantage and is becoming a destination in itself. People aren’t just stopping by on the way anymore.

Johnson, 56, grew up on a Montana ranch. He runs the farm and market with help from his wife, Leslyn, and daughter, Molly. He did it part-time for about 20 years, but the farm has been his full-time job since he retired from selling Yellow Pages four years ago. His wife, a teacher, and daughter, a student, help him in the summers.

The farm has 70 irrigated acres on the Clark’s Fork of the Yellowstone River. Johnson runs 20 head of Black Angus cattle for a friend every summer. There are 20 acres of produce including tomatoes, pumpkins, cucumbers, sweet corn, gourds, peppers and asparagus. There’s also Indian and ornamental corn, he said.

Johnson might be the first grower in Montana to use high tunnels. He mostly grows tomatoes under the tunnels, but also a few early melons. The plants are put in the greenhouse in January and transplanted to the high tunnels in March. Row covers inside the high tunnels give an extra layer of protection from freezing temperatures. His growing techniques allow him to sell tomatoes by July 1, when most growers in the area aren’t ready to sell until early August, he said.

The crops are all sold straight from the farm. As far as payment, he’s been using the honor system for 20 years. It’s worked well. People know they can pull in and grab vegetables any time during daylight hours. All they have to do is drop their money in the honor box.

At $1 a pound, the tomatoes are incredibly popular. They have 3,000 plants and still can’t keep up. They’re also the only farmers in the area who grow pumpkins, Johnson said.

The farm is open to the public from July 1 to Nov. 1. A few agritourism attractions keep customers occupied, like hay rides, a sweet corn maze for kids or a trailer painted like a pumpkin that’s been parked near the road for 10 years, he said.

Johnson built a barn in 2000. For the last six years, he’s been renting the barn out to the local YMCA for its annual craft fair. It’s a good deal for both parties. He’s been getting a lot of support from the community, he said.

Though growing in popularity, Johnson and his family want to keep their farm relatively small. They’ve got enough work to do.

“We like it the way it is,” he said.

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