Johnson Stock Farm chosen as Rancher of the Year
It's not unusual to see a family farm or ranch passed down from generation to generation. Oftentimes, it's the very goal of a family to see the fruit of their hard work and dedication transcend to the next generation to pick up and build upon. That's the case with the Johnson family of the Johnson Stock Farm of Sharon, N.D., this year's North Dakota Stockmen's Association's Rancher of the Year Award recipient.
Brothers Keith, Wayne and Leslie (Chug) Johnson began working with their father Norris on the family farm at a young age. Each brother had their own interest: Chug had a passion for farming, Wayne for mechanics and Keith for livestock. It was a diversified operation, comprised of small grains, beef and dairy cows.
The animal ag enterprise was limited though, with no water wells on the ranch. Keith recalls seven unsuccessful attempts to find water on the place before his dad poured a 27,000-gallon cistern that he filled by hauling water from a small lake three miles away. Years later, in 1961, the Johnsons built a dam and established a reservoir close enough to pump the water overland to fill the cistern. Keith credits the addition of rural water for allowing the family to grow its livestock enterprise.
Keith went off to college at North Dakota State University in 1968. A year into it, Wayne was drafted into the army and Keith was "promptly drafted back home" to help with the farming. Keith went back to college after Wayne was discharged.
In 1971, Norris decided he wanted to retire and asked his sons to farm in a partnership and, eventually, take over the operation. The brothers agreed, christening their new partnership as the Johnson Stock Farm. At the time, the brothers had less than 100 beef cows and 20 Holstein milk cows that they managed on share with their father until he passed away in 1988. The brothers' partnership continued until 1999.
At that time, Chug and his son left to build a cattle, farming and pregnant mare unit operation on their own. Keith and Wayne continued to farm together with Keith's son, Chris.
Another of Keith's sons, Jeremy, joined the operation after graduating from college in 2003. In a generous offer to make room for Jeremy in the operation, Wayne opted to semi-retire, giving up his part of the partnership and selling his share of the machinery to Jeremy and leasing his land and cattle to both of the nephews to help them more easily transition into the family business. It now entailed 500 beef cows, but no more dairy cows. The family continued under this arrangement until Wayne's death from Lou Gehrig's disease at age 67.
"In the final months of Wayne's life, we had several conversations about what would happen in the future," Keith said. "He asked me to make sure to slow down and enjoy life to the fullest because he never took the time to enjoy his retirement as much as he should have." That's when Keith decided to semi-retire himself in 2015, selling the family's land to his sons and leasing the rest of his land and machinery to them. He and his wife Becky have retained 150 cows.
Today, Johnson Stock Farm is comprised of 600 cows, more than 7,000 acres of cropland and 3,500 acres of pasture. It is owned by Chris, his wife Jennifer and their children, Shaycee, Azlynn, Roegen and Georgiann; Jeremy, his wife Lindsey and their children, Brynlee, Brevin and Brody; and Keith and Becky. A young couple, Cody and Jenna Bratlie and their children, Wyatt and Stormy, also have 20 cows in the operation and work on the farm, as do Wayne's daughter, Rendi, and her husband Shane Ebach and their daughter Piper. Keith and Becky also have a daughter, Laura, who is married to Joel Foss and has two children, Brett and Alicia, who live in nearby Hatton and help out as needed.
The Johnsons are committed to service in the cattle industry and their community. Among other positions, Keith served two terms on the NDSA Board of Directors — a highlight for him — and the NDSA Brand Board and more than 20 years on the Central Livestock board. Chris is the local township clerk and a member of the Northwood Equity Elevator Board, and Jeremy is a member of the Finley Farmers Elevator and Northwood Co-op Oil Boards.
Johnson Stock Farm has existed for 46 years with the same name, but under a variety of family partnerships. Keith said it has allowed the Johnson legacy to continue for generations and for individual family members to focus on their individual passions. It has also allowed him to proudly tell people he has never seeded a kernel of grain or driven a combine, because his heart is in the cattle.
"I look forward to the future," Keith said. "I can only hope to live long enough to see some or all of my grandchildren become involved on the Johnson Stock Farm. That would be the sixth generation to have continuously owned cattle since 1889."
"I want to congratulate the entire Johnson family on their Rancher of the Year Award," said NDSA President Warren Zenker. "You'd be hard-pressed to find a closer-knit unit committed to the family and the work of the family business."
Johnson Stock Farm was presented with the award at the annual banquet on Sept. 23 in Fargo, N.D.