Thanks to Ron Nichols of the Natural Resources Conservation Service for this article about a farmer so inspired by an NRCS Soil Health Meeting that he decided not to leave the farm, but to leave conventional agriculture instead.
Jonathan Cobb had made up his mind. He was leaving the farm.
“I was disillusioned with farming in general because we were just pushing long days and chasing acres and it didn’t seem like there was very much reward,” Cobb said. “That quality of life was not very good. My wife was having to work a lot of hours full time and really support the family. Twenty-five hundred acres really didn’t support two families, and we weren’t living extravagant lifestyles by any means.”
Then came the drought of 2011.
“Nothing even got started,” says Cobb. “It was too dry going into the planting season in the spring so we didn’t plant anything because there was no hope of anything coming up. Planting season came and went with no moisture, and then it just continued to be hot and dry. I forget how many days were over 100 degrees, but it was the hottest, driest year on record for the state.”
“I thought, maybe this is a sign from God – maybe we shouldn’t be farming. Maybe we should move on to something else,’” Cobb said. “I was looking into moving down to Austin, Texas and being involved in some urban farming setups.”
In this Soil Health Connection video below, Cobb describes how much time and courage it took to tell his Dad, he was going to quit and that he would be the last farmer in the family, ending a century-old tradition of Cobb family farming. He describes how he and his wife Kaylyn put their house on the market and prepared to move.
Shortly after making that painful decision, Cobb’s father asked him to stop by and review some soil test results that had just arrived at USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service’s office in Temple, Texas. Cobb walked into the office and found himself, “trapped” in a soil health workshop featuring NRCS’ Ray Archuleta and Willie Durham.
Jaded from lots of meetings about the latest greatest seed or technique or the mythical 3 bushels more an acre, Jonathan thought, “Oh great, I’m stuck in a meeting about more things that don’t work.” Too polite to leave, he took a seat on the front row.
Within minutes, Cobb was entranced by what he was hearing from the presenters and the presentation he was seeing with his own eyes. What he heard that morning from the soil health presenters rekindled a passion and love that conventional agriculture had nearly extinguished.
“By the end of the day I knew I was going to stay and be a part of the paradigm shift.” Cobb said.
The transition wasn’t easy. There were struggles when he felt like, “we’re just running this off the rails and ruining it, and everything Dad built is going down the toilet. And I ruined it because I tried this crazy stuff, and maybe all the naysayers were right.”
Today, the Cobb’s have downsized their farm from 2,500 acres to 450 and transitioned from row crops to cover crops with multi-species livestock grazing systems. They raise grass fed beef, lamb, pork and poultry as “Green Fields Farm.”
Cobb admits his farming operation is still evolving, but improving soil health remains the central goal.
“One very high priority is to help with the soil and building up the soil and the carbon in the soil,” he says. “We will probably make thousands of mistakes but we’ll learn along the way.”
Whatever happens, he says, “The goal is to build the soil.”
While Cobb’s new business model hasn’t fully evolved, he and his family are already reaping some of the intrinsic rewards he fondly remembered as a child growing up on the farm – like enjoying the smell of blooming clover in the evening and watching the sun rise on a warm summer day.
“If we can make a living and stay here then we couldn’t ask for anything more,” he says.