Hundreds of school children know him for his apples and his dog Emmy. As a participant in the Farm to School program with the South Washington School District, Charles Johnson, owner of Whistling Well Farm in Denmark Township, invites groups of elementary school children to visit and learn about his farm, and he captures their hearts while they are there with fresh grown apples and his self-authored book, “Emmy of Whistling Well Farm.” Most likely these children have no idea that this local fruit and vegetable farmer is also a conservation leader in the St. Croix Valley.
Johnson, known to most as Charlie, has been active in the local foods movement for years. In addition to selling his produce at farmers markets in St. Paul and Bayport and at the River Market Co-op in Stillwater, Johnson is the current president of the Minnesota Apple Growers Association and sits on the boards of the local farmers markets and the Minnesota Grown Program. He has also worked with the Minnesota Farmers Union to host a beginning farmers’ workshop.
Through the years, Johnson has worked with the Washington Conservation District (WCD) and the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) to install many conservation practices on his property, including grassed waterways that filter rainwater flowing off the fields and windbreaks that keep soil on the land. He has installed sediment control basins to keep polluted runoff out of the St. Croix River, and enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program, a US Department of Agriculture program that encourages farmers to plant vegetative cover on erodible or ecologically sensitive areas. On top of all that, Whistling Well Farm participates in the “Adopt-a-Highway Program” and is responsible for cleaning up ten miles of roadway and ditch near the farm.
Last month, Washington Conservation District board supervisors visited Whistling Well Farm during their annual tour of conservation projects in the county. The board members were particularly interested in seeing a new sediment control basin on Johnson’s property that was part of a WCD effort to fix runoff “hot-spots” in the St. Croix River Watershed. Two years ago, the WCD completed a study that identified 50 locations in southern Washington County that were contributing large amounts of phosphorus to the St. Croix River (high levels of phosphorus in the river have caused dangerous algae blooms in recent years). Located in rural and agricultural areas, most of these sites are erosion prone due to steep slopes and are located close to the St. Croix or small streams leading to the river.
While WCD staff were helping to complete a different conservation project at Whistling Well Farm last year, Johnson had asked them about an eroding gully leading into the woods. It turned out that the gully was within one of the 50 priority areas identified in the WCD’s study. With funding from the St. Croix River Association, the WCD helped Johnson and four other landowners within priority areas to install sediment basins that hold back runoff from rain and melting snow, helping to keep pollution out of the river and preventing further erosion to gullies that were forming downstream. The sediment basin at Whistling Well Farm treats runoff from 77 acres of land, capturing 33.2 pounds of phosphorus per year and 95.7 tons of soil that would otherwise flow downstream to the St. Croix River. Along with the other four projects in Afton and Denmark Twp., this WCD effort will keep 163 pounds of phosphorus out of the river each year, which is the equivalent of 81,500 pounds of algae.
In recognition of his many efforts to protect local land and water resources over the years, the Washington Conservation District decided to name Charles Johnson as its Outstanding Conservationist for 2013. WCD supervisors and staff hope that Johnson will continue to serve as a leader in the local farm community and that he will inspire other farmers in the area to practice conservation on their land as well. Without a doubt, he and his dog Emmy have certainly warmed the hearts of countless school children.