FAIRBANKS — When Jeff Johnson decided to open a local food market in Fairbanks he was told repeatedly it could not be done. With his can-do attitude and commitment to hard work, Johnson proved the naysayers wrong with his wildly popular Homegrown Market.
“Rather than look at the problems, I decided to look at the opportunities,” he said.
Johnson grew up in Colorado and Wyoming, where his family still farms and ranches. Tuckered out by the terrible economy in Colorado, he and his wife Linda came north to Alaska in 2002. “We wanted a change,” Johnson said. “We loaded up our truck, our three kids and we left. It was great fun.”
The family established a small farm in North Pole, raising chickens, goats and pigs, then they moved to a 65-acre farm on Eielson Farm Road. Johnson soon discovered that he could raise livestock just fine, but selling it was a different matter. While drinking coffee with other agricultural folks, he conceived of the notion that a store selling locally-grown food might just make it.
Meanwhile Johnson worked for B-Y Farms and the UAF School of Natural Resources and Agricultural Sciences, gaining valuable experience at both places.
What he loves best about farming is the hope that goes with it. “You hope you’re going to have a good crop. You hope the rain continues. You hope it’s going to be great and you work hard,” he said.
The downside to farming for Johnson is the unpredictability, not just of the weather, but of selling the products and what consumers are willing to buy.
With Homegrown’s motto of “fresher is better,” Johnson set about making his dream come true. “We are 95 percent local,” he said of his store’s stock. He purchases products form 122 Alaska farmers, 95 of them from the Interior. “They might bring a dozen eggs or 20 dozen,” he said.
Johnson is proud that he opened his store without grants or government assistance. He credits local businessmen Bernie Karl and Bill St. Pierre with putting him on the path to success. Alaska Small Business Development Center gave him invaluable advice, he said.
He laughingly admits that he knew so little about the world of business that he was well on his way to remodeling an old union hall for his store space when officials showed up asking to see his building permit. He hadn’t realized he needed one, but he learned the ropes and got through the process.
“I love what I’m doing,” Johnson said. “If you love what you are doing everything else will fall into place.”
His goals are to expand the store, become a USDA-inspected plant (which would allow him to sell to restaurants) and add a 1000-pound smoker so he can make kielbasa, smoked turkeys and hams. He also wants to add buffalo, elk, yak, duck and geese to his lineup of meats. He’s already had great success with reindeer, working in cooperation with UAF’s Reindeer Research Program. “I sold out of reindeer in three days at $25 per pound,” Johnson fairly crowed.
Now that he is so focused on the shop he sold his Eielson Farm Road property and moved to Murphy Dome. He will continue to grow crops and raise small animals there. He finds this new turn a bit ironic. “All my life all I wanted to do was be like my grandfather, a farmer,” he said. “I found out I’m better at working with people.”
Marketing is another thing he turned out to have a knack for. Not long on the Facebook scene, Homegrown already has 2,200 fans. Johnson uses the social media tool to entice customers to the store not only with sale prices but with gimmicks such as promising a free product to customers who tap dance for him.
He compares running the store to a chess game. “I absolutely love to sell stuff,” he said.
“Every day I wake up and say how can I take one more dollar away from Wal-Mart.”
This column is provided as a service by the UAF School of Natural Resources and Agricultural Sciences and the Agricultural
and Forestry Experiment Station. Nancy Tarnai is the school and station's public
information officer. She can be reached at email@example.com.