August 03, 2008
Boggin' in Bunnell
Farming mud brings in a whole different crop
By JULIE MURPHY
BUNNELL -- It's a place where tires can be as tall as men, engines roar and mud flies.
Afternoons are punctuated with the unspoken competition -- and bragging rights -- that come with speed, power and a willingness to emerge, in the end, like the creature from the Black Lagoon.
It's not that they got tired of watching the grass grow, but with the housing market slump, a family of sod-growers had to do something to make ends meet -- and that something is mud. Sixty acres of the Danny Johnston and Sons family farm on State Road 100 is designated for redneck fun on four wheels the second weekend of each month.
Some 1,500 mud boggers bring their toys, which range from stock all-terrain vehicles to souped-up trucks and swamp buggies, to play in an 11-acre pit of good, sticky mud. And at $15 a pop ($25 for the weekend), the Johnstons are cleaning up.
"We're selling a little bit of lawn and we keep looking for new markets, but we had to do something," said Ray Johnston, the youngest brother of the second generation to farm the property, which totals 260 acres. His son, Paul Johnston, 20, came up with the idea for this new business venture -- Boggin' in Bunnell.
"He'd been telling me for a year we need to do this," Ray Johnston said.
All three brothers -- Chip Johnston the oldest and Jeff Johnston the 'tweener -- agreed to give it a try, Ray Johnston said.
And it's not the first time the family has taken a plunge into a completely different business.
From the time Danny Johnston, the patriarch, started accumulating property with his brother, Don Moore, in the '40s, they primarily farmed cabbage. But that ended in 1999, when the last head of cabbage was cut and the Johnstons became sod farmers with a now defunct open-air vegetable market to help ease the transition.
The brothers are counting on mud to do for them now what veggies did for them then -- tide them over until the grass is green again.
While "farming" mud sounds simple enough -- just add water to dirt -- it still took a year to get the mud bogging business up and running.
"It took time and there were a lot of hoops to jump through, legally, to make sure everything was just right," Ray Johnston said.
That didn't even include creating a Web site, bogginbunnell.com, and getting the word out to ensure the family wasn't alone wallowing in the mire for the grand opening this past April.
Hard physical labor is required to create the perfect goop to both attract and keep boggers coming back for more, Chip Johnston said.
"We dig some here and dig some there to make some surprises for them," he said of the varied depth pit. "We have to tear it up a bit or it will settle and get hard."
And, the mud gets rave reviews.
"Playing in the mud is the best part of riding four-wheelers," said 6-year-old Kylee Benard of Palm Coast from astride her own pink ATV. Wisps of her blonde hair blow back from under her helmet as she races through the shallow areas -- the deep ones could swallow her whole.
Kylee isn't the only girl who enjoys getting dirty. "Make her get out and push" is a regular mantra -- and women of all ages seem happy to oblige.
"I guess it beats spending money on a spa treatment," Lynn Aspen of Bunnell said, albeit from a filled hot tub in tow behind a truck. "No, really. This is great."
Even though gas prices are high, they aren't high enough to dissuade anyone from coming out for a weekend of fun. In fact, the new venue keeps boggers from having to make long treks, sometimes out of state, to enjoy their favorite pastime.
Larry Poovey, who lives a mere two miles away, has attended every month since the bog opened.
"I don't worry about the gas prices at all. It's not very far to haul and I really don't use much gas," he said, tapping the top of his ATV.
Camping is allowed on the property, which saves some from driving back and forth both days. Adam Smith and his friend (and human windshield), Aaron Land, both of Daytona Beach, chose to stay overnight.
"This is nothing," he said of the trip from Daytona. "I've gone all the way to Georgia before, and it's nice that we can stay here."
And what does the elder Johnston think of this new style of farming?
"He's 80, and we brought him out here on Father's Day," Ray Johnston said. "We took him out in a beach buggy, and there wasn't a wrinkle left in his face. He had a grin from ear to ear." firstname.lastname@example.org