But when they started taking orders for their first crop of chickens, about 300 birds in all, they sold out faster than they'd ever imagined.
"That winter, we had to buy chicken at the grocery store," said Paul Johnson, 41.
Buyers came from around the region.
"You'd be amazed how many people will drive from Seattle for the right chicken," said Johnson, whose farm is halfway between Snohomish and Monroe on U.S. 2.
This year the farm, Pastured Sensations, is selling 900 chickens as well as 100 turkeys and 10 pigs. Though many of Johnson's chickens and turkeys are still being fattened in the fields, they're going fast.
What exactly makes the Johnsons' meats so attractive at a premium $4 to $5 a pound?
They're pastured, which means the animals spend most of their time on pasture grass.
Custom-made mobile pens allow the chickens and turkeys to eat bugs, grass and grit, in addition to grain, while they fertilize the land underneath their feet.
Every day they're moved to a fresh pasture.
The Johnsons give their animals feed that does not contain corn, soy or any genetically modified grain.
In fact, Johnson grinds and mixes his own feed blends using local grains, including field peas from Washington's Palouse region for protein (instead of soy) and state-grown wheat, barley and triticale, a wheat-rye hybrid. Fish meal from Alaska adds extra protein.
Johnson's custom feed blends are such a novelty that he's selling about 2,000 pounds a week to local hobby farmers.
Johnson formulated his mixes after consulting with animal nutritionists and reading endlessly about animal husbandry.
"I know more about animal feed than I ever thought I'd have to," he said.
Johnson objects to the growing popularity of genetically modified corn and soy crops, especially varieties that are genetically engineered to resist herbicides, such as Roundup-Ready corn from Monsanto, the maker of the commonly used herbicide Roundup.
"It's creepy," Johnson said. "I don't want to be a part of it."
That's not talk from a Seattle liberal elitist.
The Johnsons came to Snohomish with their three sons, Nick, 18, Austin, 16, and Ryan, 12, from Fort Worth, Texas, where they founded a mailing service.
They started it out of their home and eventually grew into a 10-employee company in a 6,000-square-foot office space.
Their successful enterprise gave Johnson, who had previously worked at hardware stores, a knack for small business.
When the family moved into the top level of Shawndra Johnson's parents' home overlooking the Snohomish River valley, self-taught farming seemed like a logical choice.
"I looked at the assets I had: 23 acres, a shop, all the tools, a tractor," said Johnson, who had, until then, spent most of his life in urban environments.
Shawndra Johnson, who was unsure about getting into commercial farming with so little experience, said her fears subsided the first year they raised chickens for meat.
In one bite, she was on board. "It was eye-opening," Shawndra Johnson, 40, said of the delicious flavor that far surpassed her previous chicken-eating experiences. "I said, 'If people will buy it. Let's do it.'"
The Johnsons' customers come from varied backgrounds, from Seattle gourmets who want feel-good meat from local farms, to staunch conservatives returning to old, more independent food ways.
"Those two people meet in my parking lot. They agree over a good chicken," Johnson said. "Raising food like this can bring different sides of the table together."
All the animals are killed on the farm.
Customers come to the farm to pick up fresh, not frozen, chickens and turkeys. Meat from the pigs must be cut and wrapped at local butcher shops.
Though the farm made a small profit in 2009, the Johnsons hope the operation will someday support the whole family.
Right now, because of the cold spring that slowed their operation dramatically, that's not possible.
Shawndra Johnson works as the charitable giving administrator for Imagine Children's Museum in Everett. Paul Johnson recently started a part-time job in addition to tending the farm with the couple's three sons.
Johnson said he hopes to eventually raise 3,000 chickens, 1,000 turkeys and 40 pigs every year.
The Johnsons don't have plans to grow heritage-breed birds. They take longer to grow and require more feed and that would drive up their prices, already at $18 to $20 per chicken and sometimes as much as $100 per turkey.
Johnson sells the same type of birds sold at grocery stores: Cornish cross chickens and broad-breasted white turkeys.
"It's not just economics that puts us to that," he said. "It's a better value for a customer."
He's not using organic feed either, partly because of sourcing and partly because of cost.
"Part of sustainability is it can sustain the farmer who raises it," Johnson said. "It has to be sustainable financially."
Johnson sets his meat apart by putting his animals on pasture and giving them special feed. He says the flavor difference is striking.
Grocery store chicken seems flabby to him now in terms of texture.
How does his taste?
"It's tastes like chicken, but only more so," he said. "It's tender, but it's firmer."
Johnson said the flavor effect is the same, but even more striking, with their turkeys.
If flavor isn't enough, Johnson is betting that the openness and transparency of his farm will give them a boost, especially in an age when large food corporations avoid questions from journalists and won't open up their facilities to the public.
"Here I am," Paul Johnson said. "You can come meet me and see everything we've got."
Sarah Jackson: 425-339-3037, firstname.lastname@example.org.
This Snohomish farm, at 14226 U.S. 2, sells a variety of meats, including whole chickens and turkeys, and pigs that are available by the whole or half hog.
To order, e-mail email@example.com, see [URL]www.pasturedsensations.com;http://www.pasturedsensations.com[URL] or call 360-568-5208.
Life on the farm
See a video made by Herald Reporter Simon Boas about the Johnson family and their farm by going to this story at www.[/URL]heraldnet.com;http://www.heraldnet.com[URL].[/URL]
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