Johnston Farms in Edison, CA, near Bakersfield, is a fourth-generation family farming operation. According to Dennis Johnston, a partner in the company, his grandfather, John C. Johnston, started farming potatoes in the Edison area of Kern County in 1947, and the family planted its first Navels in 1963, making 2013 the 50th anniversary of the company’s involvement in citrus.
Johnston Farms continues to grow potatoes as it has for the last 35 years. It also packs and ships the potatoes. In addition, the company grows, packs and ships Bell peppers and also grows carrots that are packedand marketed by other companies.
“We started packing our first fruit in 1982,” Mr. Johnston said Oct. 19. That makes 2012 the company’s 30th anniversary as a citrus packer.
Mr. Johnston’s father, Dennis Johnston, and his uncle, Gerald (now retired), were the second generation in the business. A cousin, Kevin Johnston, is a partner, and two nephews, Derek and Cameron Vaughn, are also in the business.
Sales are presently handled by Mr. Johnston, his cousin and his nephews, along with Harley Phillips. Joe Romani, who was previously in sales, is now retired. “We needed somebody to replace him, so we thought the boys were ready, and we moved them into sales,” Mr. Johnston said.
Navels are the largest-volume citrus item grown by Johnston Farms, but the company also grows various other citrus products and is particularly well-known for its Satsumas, a program it has been steadily building over time, Mr. Johnston said.
The Navel season runs from November through May, he said. Satsumas go from mid-November to mid-January. Red grapefruit, which is grown mainly for export, starts around Dec. 10 and runs to mid-January.
“We continue to pull and replant as needed and plant new varieties,” he said. “We are planting some late-season [Navel] varieties now to extend our window a little later into the spring. That is an ongoing process.” Some of the older varieties “have started to lose favor. We are replacing those with other [more desirable] varieties. The Fukumotos are coming on now, and it is a fairly decent piece of fruit for early season” with good color and improved flavor over some other early varieties.
“Our Mandarin deal continues to grow slowly,” Mr. Johnston said. It is not a huge program. “The clementine guys will do in a day what we do all season. But we are real happy with the Satsuma. We think it is the best-eating fruit out there, so we have stuck with it rather than clementines, and demand has been good all these years. It has been good, consistent movement, and people like the flavor. They really like the Satsumas.”
Johnston Farms initially got into grapefruit “just as an export thing, and it is still mainly an export thing for Australia and New Zealand,” he said. “It started out as a deal where we put a couple of pallets on a truck to go overseas and fill it out with Navels. Now it has gotten a lot bigger than that. We move a fair amount of volume to those two countries from December through January,” something on the order of 75,000 boxes a year.
In all of the company’s citrus programs, “we strive to have good flavor and high-quality fruit here,” Mr. Johnston said. “We try to do the best we can.” For that reason, Johnston Farms does not start shipping Satsumas as early as they might. “Satsumas will test now, but we don’t think they are good enough to eat [yet], so we just wait,” he said. “That has been our strength in the Satsuma deal. We just wait for flavor.”