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Flavor 1st welcomes its most famous visitor

Kirby Johnson, right, hosted apple farmer Kenny Barnwell (left) and U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue on a July 27 visit that showcased the USDA's Farmers to Families Food Box Program. [LIGHTNING FILE PHOTO] Kirby Johnson, right, hosted apple farmer Kenny Barnwell (left) and U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue on a July 27 visit that showcased the USDA's Farmers to Families Food Box Program. [LIGHTNING FILE PHOTO]

MILLS RIVER — Kirby Johnson was planting green beans on his 550-acre farm in May when he got a call from the state Agriculture Department about a new federal program to feed the needy. He plunged into the program immediately, earning a visit from the nation's top farm official last month.


On Aug. 14, he got a call from White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows with even bigger news: President Trump was coming to visit his Flavor 1st packing operation.

The name and face behind a family business that has spanned eight generations, Johnson orchestrates a huge growing, packing and delivery enterprise that supplies produce to a market that blankets the Eastern Seaboard and reaches the Mississippi River. You can't go to a chain supermarket without seeing the Flavor 1st Growers & Packers logo, a vine that pays homage to the farm’s crown jewel: tomatoes plucked from the vine in the Carolinas, Georgia and Florida and fill produce aisles, restaurant menus and cruise ship buffets far and wide.

Kirby began learning the family trade when he was seven years old, packing boxes for delivery to big-name grocery stores. The Johnson family farm had sold cattle and produce since its beginnings in 1798, and Johnson had his first taste of ownership at 12 when he took over the family pasture after his grandfather died. His grandfather, Pete Johnson, shared the tricks and tips of the cattle business, and the advice has guided Johnson ever since. In high school, the budding cattle man bought steers from local dairies, then raised and sold them each spring in local auctions. While Johnson is no longer in the cattle business himself, his grandfather’s influence has a tight grip on the empire he has nurtured and expanded.

Flavor 1st packs its own crops and partners with nearly 50 farmers across North Carolina and from New York to Homestead, Florida. Vegetables and fruits from the farm fields stock local stores in Boston, Massachusetts, to chains such as Publix, Ingles Aldi and more.

But even an enterprise that helps feed a nation was not immune to the effects of the coronavirus. Flavor 1st lost a major source of revenue when the cruise ship industry foundered, then took another hit when restaurants closed. The two industries made up 35 percent of the produce company’s income.

The company had lost $1.4 million when Johnson got the call from Bill Yarborough, the agricultural programs administrator for the North Carolina Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services. Yarborough wanted to know if Johnson was interested in the Farmers to Families Food Box Program, a new initiative the Trump administration had launched to help families impacted by the pandemic.

“When I hung up with him, I thought to myself this pandemic will be over by the time we get our first order," Johnson said, "and nine days later, I was packing boxes here at the packing house and helping the farmers here that needed it."

A frenzy of preparation


Since the beanfield call, Flavor 1st has regained its losses and then some, with more than $2 million going to the farmers that supply food that Johnson’s packing house workers box up for needy families.

After Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue visited last month to highlight the food box program, he must have carried a positive review of the trip back to Washington.

Now, Johnson is just two days away from welcoming its most famous guest to his sprawling packing operation in Mills River.

On the eve of President Trump’s visit, you can find Johnson preparing the Mills River packing house, where he will spend about two hours Monday as tour guide for President Trump, Trump's daughter and senior adviser Ivanka Trump, White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, the former 11th Congressional District representative; Perdue and North Carolina Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler. During the tour, Trump will hear farmers’ stories about how the food box program benefited them, Johnson said.

“It’s been a whirlwind, and I’m amazed at how the government is handling it,” he said about the event.

He has been spending the past few days answering questions from the Secret Service, moving equipment for the 600-person event and helping with other preparations. The packing house will have stations on the day of the event, including one for greeting the president, one where Trump will meet the farmers and another where he will load food boxes onto a truck. For the event finale, Johnson, President Trump, and other guest speakers will talk to a crowd of about 400 guests that have received special invitations for the event. Johnson is expected to be alongside the president from start to finish. He will introduce the president to the guests and share how the Farmers to Families Food Box Program has touched his life and those of the farmers.
The closed event’s guest list includes Republican Party activists from throughout North Carolina, Baptists on a Mission leaders and Flavor 1st friends. Guests will get their temperature checked before they are shuttled to the facility. There, they will be screened outside and go through security. Once guests gain entrance, the building will be sealed. Henderson County will also send sheriff’s deputies to guard the perimeter of the facility.

“This is one of the highlights of my life, but I couldn’t have done it by myself,” Johnson says. “I just happened to be the one to get the call. It helps my farmers, my farm and people in need.”

'Taking care of America'

Johnson has been able to see the faces of some of the families in real-time as they receive their boxes, and their reactions bring chill bumps to the father of three, who also has nine grandchildren. Being a part of such a program reminds him of the America he was raised in, where he says people take care of each other regardless of political ideology.

“You don’t realize how much some people are hurting,” he said. “This has to do with taking care of America. It’s what I grew up in and what I hope never changes.”

Each week, Flavor 1st packers box up, label and load some 7,500 boxes of produce onto three trucks that make their way from the Mills River plant to local food pantries such as Manna Food Bank in Asheville and local churches, to Avery County, through Charlotte, and into the Raleigh-Durham area. Area businesses have rallied around the  mission. With the help of Baptists on a Mission, boxes filled with tomatoes, apples, grapes, squash, zucchini and sweet potatoes are delivered to 30 locations weekly. The Mills River packing houses has shipped around 80,000 boxes so far. Carolina Farm Credit bought Flavor 1st a truck, already branded with the farm's trademark emblem, to haul food boxes.

“That’s what excites me so much about people in America, they’re still people that are truly like me,” Johnson said. “At times of crisis you step up to a point you never thought you could step up to.”

Flavor 1st, considered the cream of the crop in the farming industry, was picked by the USDA to participate in its program because of its safety protocols. The program has saved farmers in Georgia that work with Johnson and has kept many families from going hungry. It has also provided salaries for more than 150 Flavor 1st employees, a trickle-down boost for the packers and their families, Johnson said.
“I’m so proud. I thank the president, Sonny, the Senate and Congress for doing what they did,” he said. “It’s just overwhelming to hear some of the stories on the receiving end of the produce boxes, and how much this is helping people. I want to make sure he knows that from my side.”