-- On the east bank of the river, beyond a narrow fringe of cypress and
tupelo, are swamps so tough that moonshiners used to make good livings here.
Not much distillin' goes on in these parts any more, but the mile-wide wetland running parallel to the St. Johns
remains a wildly productive place; its main job being to filter nutrients and sediment in the runoff from adjacent farms.
Danny Johns' place -- Blue Sky Farms -- sits on the other side of this swamp; his fields drain into the wetland, into the river.
What's really tough about being a grower in this area of Florida is being the proverbial whipping boy for the problems
plaguing the St. Johns, namely nutrients and sedimentation.
"I'm fourth generation out here," Danny says over the din of a diesel-powered John Deere. He drops down on hands and
knees with unabashed frugality and crawls under the tractor to collect the half dozen or so stray potato seed pieces
that landed on the ground instead of in big buckets. Any he finds that are bigger than two ounces, he slices in
half with a knife that he keeps blade-down in the pocket of his dusty blue workpants, economically making two
seeds out of one. "I love what I'm doing. But it's real tough."
What's really tough about being a grower in this area of Florida -- other than lots of seven-day weeks of 18-hour days,
other than hurricanes and droughts, and other than failing to turn a profit for consecutive years -- is being the
proverbial whipping boy for the problems plaguing the St. Johns, namely nutrients and sedimentation.
"I feel like agriculture has a big target on it," Danny says, eager to set the record straight: "Farmers are the best
stewards of the land. Fertilizers and pesticides and fungicides are very expensive. We don't use any more than we
need. We live out here with these chemicals. We eat the products that come off the farm. I raised two kids on this
land, the same land my grandfather farmed. I want them to have the opportunity to farm, if they so desire.
It would behoove us to take care of it."
Danny's lean but tall as weed -- big enough to use up the whole inside space of his tractor's one-man cab. Still,
he's happy to scooch over when I ask to hitch a ride out into a field that's a mile deep and a half-mile wide.
"It's all radar operated," he explains, re-programming the four-row potato planter so it will drop the seeds a little
closer together -- seven and a half inches apart as opposed to the eight inches he originally had set.
Danny's got everything calibrated down to the decimal: the ounces of fungicide; the gallons of fertilizer.
Moving at 4.2 miles per hour, we're dropping 20,000 seeds per acre, simultaneously spritzing liquid nitrogen
on either side of each seed and a fungicide on top to coat them.
"This is what's kept our family in new shoes for four generations so far," Danny says, adding: "Notice I said so far.
My son's 18 and still waffling."
Danny tells me that his older brother, also a Hastings farmer, has a GPS-operated tractor with a computer screen in his tractor cab.
An historic Hastings family that's been farming since the 1920s, the Johns' are reputed for being cutting-edge.
Danny's great grandfather, Frank Johns, was featured in a 1930 publication of "Tractor Farming"
(published by International Harvester) for being the first horse-less farm.
"This is what's kept our family in new shoes for four generations so far," Danny says, adding:
"Notice I said so far. My son's 18 and still waffling."
Despite the high-tech nature of modern-day farming, these are not big corporate growers out here in Hastings,
the Potato Capital of Florida. These are family businesses struggling to stay afloat.
Danny figures his farm is worth about $10 million in Florida's current real estate market. The developers are
insatiable for land; there's lots of pressure on growers to sell, he says. But even after two years of losing money,
he can't think of anything he'd rather be doing -- except maybe surfing once in a while.
"Farm years are like dog years," Johns says, revealing a bald head under his frayed khaki cap. "For every one of a
regular person, a farmer ages seven, what with frosts and freezes."
At 48, he might consider himself an old dog, but with at least one new trick left in him.
Imagine: a potato that makes growers happy, consumers happy, AND the river happy. This variety requires less nitrogen
and phosphorus (less fertilizer) than other varieties, and also less irrigation because it's faster growing.
"This is the first time in 28 years -- since I started farming -- that I don't have a chip potato on the farm," says Danny.
Danny's taking a gamble, this year, planting a new seed variety that will yield a potato that's been aptly dubbed "Sunlite."
He hasn't been this excited about planting something in a long time. It's a big-taste low-carb variety for which he
and a handful of Hastings farmers have purchased the copyright. The fact that the potato has a third fewer carbs and
a quarter less calories than other varieties isn't what convinced Danny to stake his future on it: "Flavor was the
No. 1 criteria for selecting this potato, and appearance was No. 2," he says. "About a week later (after we
decided on it) we found out about it being low-carb."
Imagine: a potato that makes growers happy, consumers happy, AND the river happy. This variety requires less
nitrogen and phosphorus (less fertilizer) than other varieties, and also less irrigation because it's faster growing.
It may well prove to be a life preserver for farmers as well as the St. Johns.
"This is exciting for the Hastings area," Danny says. "The Sunlite is infusing it with a new energy, revitalizing a
Historically, Hastings is potato and cabbage country. It's been an agricultural center since the 1890s when Henry Flagler,
Florida's first developer, sent a relative out here to start farming because Flagler needed a supply of fresh vegetables
for his new hotels in St. Augustine.
Just 30 years ago, 400 potato growers farmed 35,000 acres. Now, 38 potato growers, Danny Johns among them, farm about
17,000 acres. The growers who remain have had to learn to adapt to new development and also to strict new government
guidelines aimed at lowering the levels of nitrogen and phosphorus in the river.
The state has set a "total maximum daily load" for the St. Johns River by calculating the levels of nutrients the
river can handle and still remain healthy. Danny Johns and other growers are expected to do their part in meeting
the daily load limit within five years by voluntarily adopting a suite of "best management practices."
Danny implements nutrient management practices as well as irrigation and water management; under each of those
broad categories are specific practices such as soil testing, split application of fertilizers, and reduced fertilizer rates.
We trudge into a far field, in the direction of the swamp, where an early crop of Sunlites awaits harvesting.
Danny shows me how to dig them out of the ground, by hand.
The smell of earth and potatoes is intoxicating.
Danny flicks the light skin of one of the potatoes, polishes it on his shirt sleeve, and holds it up to the sun, not so
much for inspection as admiration. It really does sparkle, like gold.
"Gorgeous," Danny says, "It's absolutely gorgeous."