PERU – When Joan and Bob Johnson bought 28 acres of land along the Wabash River in 2011, the property was used to grow corn and soybeans.
Today, the property is still used as farm ground, but the Johnson’s are growing way more than corn. These days, the land -- used as a ditch on the Wabash and Erie Canal and later part of the interurban train line -- boasts a huge variety of plants, bushes and crops that would be tough to find at any other farm in the area.
There are patches of red and black raspberries, strawberries, aronia berries and elderberries. There are fruit trees producing peaches, apples, cherries and plums. There’s an herb garden growing peppermint, spearmint, lavender, thyme, oregano, basil and more.
There are flower fields full of clover, sunflowers, buckwheat and other annuals and perennials. Not far from there is about 3 acres of newly planted trees, including sycamore, oak, persimmon and hazelnut.
Then there’s the patch of more than 400 native pawpaw trees that for the first time this year will produce a huge crop of the tropically flavored fruit. It’s one of the largest pawpaw orchards in the state.
And at the center of it all, at the highest point on the property, are the 18 hives swarming with bees, busy making honey. It’s those beehives that are the namesake of the property, which the Johnsons call Nektar Flow Farms.
Walk through the farm today and it’s tough to believe the land was once covered in corn and soybeans. In just seven years, the Johnsons have transformed the property into an all-natural haven that’s close to becoming certified organic.
But it’s the bees that brought them to land.
Before moving to the property at 10394 E. Lewisburg Road, Joan and Bob had lived on Center Road near the Wildcat Creek Golf Course in Kokomo. Bob, a master apiarist, started with two hives there, but quickly added more as his honeybee population grew.
Soon, he had seven hives of bees swarming on the property. Joan said they were running out of land to sustain the hives, which were located in a residential neighborhood.
“We brought our neighbors honey,” she said with a laugh. “That helped our reputation.”
They also wanted to start growing a garden, but the soil around their house had become contaminated by all the walnuts around the property, which produce a chemical that’s toxic to traditional garden plants such as tomatoes, potatoes and eggplant.
So they started a three-year search for a new home where they could expand their honeybee hives and start a garden. Joan, the founder and owner of Sunspot Natural Market, which has locations in Kokomo and West Lafayette, said they wanted to find a piece of land near water that wasn’t too far from her stores.
When they came across the land near the Miami County-Cass County line, Joan said, they knew they had found the perfect spot to undertake their new farming venture.
“We really scored with this land, because it runs a half-mile along the Wabash River,” she said.
The day before they officially took over the land in November 2011, the farmer came and took off the last harvest of corn. After that, the Johnsons hired another farmer to mow off all the corn stubble and till up all the soil so they could start their farm from scratch.
“We said, ‘Bye, bye, GMOs. See you later,’” Joan said.
The first order of business was finding the highest point on the property, where Bob put his bee hives. Then they started planting crops and flowers that would give the bees the natural pollen and nectar they need to make their honey.
The Johnsons also worked closely with neighboring farmers to ensure the success of their hives. Bob said today’s genetically modified corn contains a coating of chemicals that is toxic to bees and has led to the massive collapse of bee colonies all over the world.
But, Joan said, the farmer around their property who plants GMO corn graciously agreed to plant the fields around their property at night, when the bees are inside their hives. They also planted trees around parts of the property to ensure herbicides from other fields wouldn’t drift into the bee colony.
Today, the bees are thriving. Joan said the hives on average produce around 60 pounds of honey, but, depending on the year, some hives will put out 250 pounds. That honey is bottled and sold at farmers markets. The wax is used in soap and other products.
Bob said besides the bees, the other big undertaking at the farm is the 410 pawpaw trees they’ve planted, which is one of the largest orchards of its kind in Indiana.
The Johnsons currently forage the fruit from the trees growing in the woods around their property and use it to make ice cream. Bob said the orchard will produce its first crop this year, and he anticipates harvesting around 300 pounds of the fruit, which is native to the Midwest.
Joan said transforming a former corn and soybean field into an all-natural farm has been a huge undertaking. When she and Bob aren’t working at Sunspot, most of their time is spent outside working the land.
For the two, the extra work has been worth it. Not only do they feel like they’re fulfilling their mission of growing organic, natural food, they’re also creating a patch of healthy land for generations to come.
“We try to think seven generations down the line, and we don’t want to have a poisonous growing space,” she said. “We want pure nature. We do this for the world and we do it for nature, and we’re a part of that nature, so we’re also doing it for ourselves, too.”