Duane Johnson has no intention of retiring. It took nearly a lifetime to find his true calling and at 82, he's not about to slow down. "I expect to be in the sharpening business until they carry me out," he says jokingly. But he's not kidding. "I always wanted to find a business I could love and be passionate about. I really believe that people are made to work and are happiest if they're contributing."
Johnson was raised on a small family farm in North Dakota and came to Boulder to study mathematics toward a PhD at CU. It was there that he met and married Shirley, the love of his life, moved to her family farm near Lafayette and began to work the property that has been in her family since 1860. "I was literally a moonlight farmer," recalls Johnson. "I'd work all day at my regular job and farm at night." The couple raised cattle, horses and grew hay. In the early '90s Duane and Shirley started growing organic vegetables and sweet corn, named their enterprise Poco a Poco and joined the Boulder County Farmers' Markets.
Johnson launched his sharpening business ten years ago and is fond of saying it was time to settle down and find a permanent line of work. "It's a good fit for me and I like having my own business. Of all the things I’ve done, this is the most satisfying." he shares. Johnson's varied career path includes serving in the military, a decade in education and another at IBM before realizing he wasn't fulfilled. "I am an independent type and had a hard time working for industry," he explains, so he quit IBM, continued to farm and started making furniture. "As a wood worker I was getting my tools sharpened from a guy in Boulder who became my friend and encouraged me to get into sharpening. I thought it would be a good fit," he recalls. "It's quite a science to know what's the best edge to put on a knife. It fits my character. I like to do things well."
In 2002, Johnson got the okay to offer sharpening services at the Boulder market and when a city pipeline disrupted their farm, Duane and Shirley retired Poco a Poco to focus full-time on Johnson Sharpening. The business has expanded steadily and the Johnsons take pride in their ability to sharpen just about anything. Services at the markets focus on knives and garden tools while more complicated blades go to the shop. "We'll sharpen things no one else wants to," says Johnson, like old push mowers and paper cutters."
"Fussy about doing things right," Johnson uses a system recognized as the premier method of sharpening. "It's called Perfect Edge but I adapted the method and made my own machine to better serve my customers. It's fast but really good. People tell me I should patent it," says Johnson. And one look at the consistent flow of traffic at his market booths, customers certainly appear to be satisfied. "I think we're a big asset to the markets. At the time we started this, there weren't many other markets in the country doing it. We may have been one of the first." According to Johnson, sharpening is a dying profession and it's difficult to find a service. His customer base extends far beyond the Front Range and it's not unusual for out of town visitors to pack their knives for a tune-up at the market. "It's a joy to be in this business because it’s so appreciated. There aren't that many of us around," says Johnson. "Sharpening is an ancient craft and it's fun to think that I'm doing the same thing our ancestors were doing, only with different materials."
With help from family members David, Terri, Jim, Barbara, and Tom, Johnson Sharpening participates in five local markets. Duane and Shirley stay quite busy operating a home shop and maintaining the family farm. "Its all been very satisfying and it's a good business for an old man," smiles Duane. "Especially now that my family got interested and everyone is involved. It's very satisfying to know they will follow in my footsteps and someday take over the business."
Find Johnson Sharpening at the Boulder and Longmont Markets all season long and at the Winter Farmers' Market & Holiday Gift Show on December 1st & 2nd at the Boulder County Fairgrounds.
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