By Juliana McCully
In the mountains near Sparta, they call him “Mr. Christmas,” but these days, NC State alum and Christmas-tree farmer Johnny Wishon is known as North Carolina’s 2019 Farmer of the Year.
Wishon graduated from NC State in 1988 with a degree in agricultural education, but he began farming while he was still in college. The 400 trees he planted on family land in 1985 have grown into a successful multi-company, value-added farm focused on the holidays.
Wishon was nominated by Callie Birdsell Carson, field representative for the North Carolina Farm Bureau Federation. “Johnny has such a unique operation as a sole proprietor growing Christmas trees, pumpkins, gourds, and greenery,” Carson said. “I’ve always found him to be a laid back, highly intelligent, well-respected man in the community who enjoys sharing his knowledge and love of agriculture with others. He’s conscientious of the environment, innovative and relatable.”
“There’s more than one reason why people around here call him Mr. Christmas,” Carson added.
Catching the Farming Bug
Wishon said he started out like a lot of college students, working for another Christmas-tree farmer on breaks and summers. He “caught the bug,” and before he had even graduated, Wishon had planted his own trees and was hoping the effort would grow into a sideline business.
I wouldn’t trade my time at NC State for anything.
It took 10 years of working two jobs, as a tree farmer and an agricultural science teacher at Alleghany High School, to be able to farm full time, and Wishon said his NC State education prepared him for the journey.
“Getting an education and getting a degree from NC State, you learn the technical skills, but you also learn how to ask the questions when you don’t know something,” he said. “It also gave me the ability to teach school and support myself while getting my farm started. When I speak to Extension specialists and such, they’re speaking the language I understand.
“When I think of my time at State, I think of lifelong friends and developing a network of people to lean on, and I wouldn’t trade my time at NC State for anything.”
I’m one of those lucky guys who gets up every morning and loves what he does. … I love seeing how the trees change every year.
Likewise, farming has been good to him: “Every day’s a challenge, and I’m one of those lucky guys who gets up every morning and loves what he does. If you do the right stuff, it’s amazing – I love seeing how the trees change every year.”
But trees are a long-term deal, Wishon said, and farmers must always look about 10 years down the road. The seed in his greenhouse will be his 2030 crop, “which is crazy to think about,” he said.
That long-term deal has meant diversified farming has been an important choice in his success, and it’s why he’s in the pumpkin business: “There was a national oversupply of trees at about the exact same time the country experienced an economic downturn, and prices really dropped. We’re in this for the long haul, so we needed to find a way to make some money, and pumpkins were a good fit for us.
If you take care of your farm, your environment and your crops, they will take care of you.
“If you take care of your farm, your environment, and your crops, they will take care of you,” Wishon said. “Being stewards of the land is a privilege and responsibility, and I hope what we’re doing on our farm contributes to our overall purpose here on Earth, which is to help each other.”
As winner of the Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo award for North Carolina, Wishon moves on to compete for the Southeast region in August. The final winner is eligible for a cash prize of $15,000.