by Laura Rodley
The Johnson family of Orange, MA serves maple syrup at Johnson’s Farm Restaurant Sugarhouse and Gift Shop all year long and sells through their farmstore and website.
They’re menu features pan-seared maple scallops, maple chicken, maple barbecued ribs and baked beans made with maple syrup and homemade maple donuts.
Maple syrup has been made on the farm for over 100 years, starting with the original owner, Solomon Johnson, setting the first taps at the end of the 18th century. The farm continued on under his son Phillip Johnson, then Phillip Gustaf Johnson. The farm is now in the hands of Stephen Johnson and his wife Dede. Adult daughters Erica Lebrun, of Southboro, MA and Mandy Blackbird of Athol, MA help out with the sugaring and ordering for the gift store. Erica’s children assist with sugaring too, helping set out the 3,000 buckets on 1,500 pipelines, making it a six-generation farming family.
Until the early 90s, the farm was also a dairy.
“We couldn’t afford grain, prices went so high, and we weren’t making any money milking,” said Dede. So in 1993, Stephen’s father sold the herd of 25 Holsteins. The love for cows and oxen still resonated in Dede and her husband Stephen, so they bought a pair of red Devon oxen named Buck and Red that became the farm’s icons, alongside their maple syrup.
When Dede and Stephen took over the farm in 2000, they were faced with how to keep the land. They decided to sell vegetables and baked goods out of a small outside farm stand housed in a shed.
“I was the baker,” said Dede. “I don’t know how it happened. It became breakfast, lunch and dinner. We’re very busy, very, very fortunate.”
They built the restaurant following the premise based on the 1989 movie Field of Dreams, “If you build it they will come,” starting with just a first floor, tearing down the original family farmhouse to build on its site.
Now it is a two story restaurant that seats 90, with a basement and porch where people can sit outside in the summer. Customers see a lot of wildlife, including deer and fawns in the summer.
Many of the sugar maples planted on the farm are 200 years old and have recently been cut down to stumps left standing at 15 feet. The scenic route to their restaurant has few of the maple giants, 5 ft. across, remaining but one stands as sentinel on the path to their sugarhouse.
To replenish the trees, the Johnsons have planted more that are now 45 years old and can support being tapped for one sugar bucket a piece.
Dede listens to what her customers want. Initially, they sold homemade maple and maple walnut ice cream but everybody wanted breakfast, lunch and dinner, so they sold their ice cream equipment and the rest is history. Being an owner of a restaurant still surprises her — it wasn’t on her radar 20 years ago.
“It’s still going strong. I’m not saying it’s not a lot of work, but it’s worth it.”