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A small farmer with a big heart
Willie Johnson reminisces on a career spent serving the stomachs and souls of Savannah

WHEN Willie Johnson quits farming – and at 73, the owner of Port Wentworth’s Promised Land Farms knows he has to – he says he’ll miss plowing and watching things grow.

But after a few minutes of talking to him, it’s clear that his favorite part of his profession doesn’t have anything to do with corn, okra, collards or anything vegetable or mineral.

“I’ll miss all the good customers that see us out here and also at Butterbean Beach,” he says. Johnson has sold vegetables out near the Skidaway Island bridge for 27 years.

“They show a lot of love for me and my wife,” he says. “Some people come just to see us.” He sold to Mrs. Wilkes and M&M Supermarkets, which became Kroger in the 80’s.

He and his brother Robert also gave away vegetables free at their annual Collard Greens Festival, which started in 1997 and ended a few years ago. In short, he’s a blessing.

A blessing of goodness from the earth. A blessing of smiles. But not even blessings can delay the body’s inevitable decline. “It’s hard for me to get on the tractor now,” he says.

“My legs and knees are going.” He’s had four strokes. And now his one kidney (he had a kidney removed because it was covered with cancer) is shot and needs to be replaced.

His friends started a Go Fund Me page to help with the expenses. He’ll visit doctors soon to learn more. But his health is unclear enough that he knows his farm days are over.

“I know I got to give it up,” he says. “But it’s hard.” And even more so considering the farm days that he’s seen. Just think about it. He moved to his farm, in Montieth, in 1965.

He remembers good years and bad, equipment old and new, children going off and doing their own thing (no one wants to continue farming anymore) and changes in the business.

“The big man ate up the little man,” he says of the biggest change, the one that clobbered small farms, like his 20 acres, when local supermarkets became national supermarkets.

“If you’re a little person like we are, big stores don’t give you a break,” he says. He also saw that cultural shift from when people once thought of farmers as society’s backbone.

Today, a few young and hip people are bucking the trend, thankfully. But largely, people don’t want to work the dirt and sun. They only want to get sweaty in nightclubs.

“People look down on us but we got one of the best jobs there is,” says Johnson, proud in his overalls and cap. “People think it’s dirty work but everything comes from the farm.”

Once an elementary school class came to visit his farm. (Do teachers even take kids to farms anymore?) And one girl said she thought vegetables grew in the grocery store.

Yes, our farming knowledge is minimal – just like our organ donation rate. Twenty-two people die each day waiting for a transplant of some kind, mostly kidneys.

“Living donors” made only about 6,000 transplants last year, compared with 33,000 “deceased donors” and a waiting list of 117,000 people in the United States alone.

I know that parting with a kidney is serious business. (Friends have asked me to be an organ donor and I politely declined.) And I know that lots of worthy causes need funding.

But Johnson literally has nourished and sustained people here in a most important way, our bodies. He made us healthy. Now how will Savannah help him stay healthy?