Meet Pud: Working the tree farm at 94 years old and still going strong
OXFORD STATION -- Pud Johnston started harvesting Christmas trees on his farm in North Grenville when Louis St. Laurent was Prime Minister, and 67 years later, he’s still at it.
“As a forester, I had an understanding of how to grow things. We grew good trees and our trees were always in strong demand. And they still are.”
At age 94, Pud’s still working 4-5 days a week; the passing years no match for his grit.
“I feel great. No aches or pains. I do a little bit every day and keep active. That’s the secret to longevity—don’t slow down. Some people go to the gym. I go to the farm.”
Pud’s son, Kerry, now runs the farm, but notes the energetic patriarch is always on the job.
“Well, he really should be contributing a little more,” he jokes. “He’s only working four or five hours a day—bankers hours.”
Pud supplies trees to private homes and businesses across Eastern Ontario. This year, clients include the Governor General, the Prime Minister, and Ottawa’s Mayor. Loyal customers return to the farm every year to cut their own balsam, and offer greetings to the local tree-growing legend.
“The Christmas season is great. It’s nice to meet people. They’re almost like friends. They remember me from years ago. I had a couple in here yesterday and the young woman with children said she came here when she was a child and now she’s bringing her children. They really love it.”
Eugene Johnston was born and raised in Prescott. He was just four-years-old when a neighbour nicknamed him “Pud”, after a character in a comic strip.
“And I’d tell him emphatically ‘my name is not Pud, it’s Eugene’ and this just egged him on. And he kept calling me Pud and it stuck. Now I’m known across the province as Pud Johnston.
Pud did a stint in the army before earning a forestry degree at university. His studies led to a rewarding career with the Ministry of Natural Resources, and a life-long love of trees and forest management. In 1952, Pud and his brother, Eric (now deceased) opened Johnston Brothers Tree Farm in Oxford Station. It was an enterprise with one goal in mind.
“Money,” he laughs. “We were young and had young families. We needed money and there was a belief in the area at the time that you could buy a tree from the Ministry of Natural Resources for one cent, put it in the ground, and in seven years, it would be worth a dollar.”
Initially, Pud planted thousands of Scotch Pine trees on his 300 acre property. Over time, however, he says pine fell out of favour with Christmas tree buyers.
“When balsam was ready, they started to choose balsam, instead of Scotch Pine. Obviously that was the preferred species, so now we have Balsam or Fraser Fir exclusively.”
The Johnstons plant five to ten thousand trees annually, which grow from five to 25 feet tall.
“After 67 years, we know how to grow trees”, Pud says.
Sheila Johnston, Pud’s wife of 57 years, is also active on the farm. She’s proud of her husband’s legacy and admires his devotion to his work.
“This place is special to Pud. He puts his whole heart and soul into it. He’s just very devoted to growing a better tree, even better than the one he grew seven years before. It’s a beloved place for him to be”.
Pud’s daughter, Beverley Johnston, echoes her mom’s praise.
“This is my Dad’s life. He’s a very hard worker. He’s created a beautiful place and he grows an amazing Christmas tree,” she says.
Now a new generation of Johnstons is finding its way to the farm. Pud’s grandchildren are harvesting trees and memories, working alongside their grandfather.
“You see him working and it just makes you smile, says 14-year-old Connor Johnston. “Not many people can do this anymore”.
“It’s absolutely incredible when you think about it,” says 17-year-old Jessica Mulkins. “94-years-old, that’s almost a century.”
“No one else can do what he does,” remarks 15-year-old Madeline Mulkins. “I don’t think he’s ever going to stop.”
The grandkids say they too hope to be planting trees at age 94.
“Hope so,” says 17-year-old Eric Johnston, as he gestures toward his grandfather. “But he’ll probably still be here.”
No doubt. This friend of the forest has no plans to leave the farm. Pud Johnston’s favourite Christmas tradition is ensuring others have the perfect tree to celebrate theirs.