Jonathan Cobb interviewed by: Chris Walters
This month’s interview swings our focus away from storied veterans to a newcomer, a young farmer trying to forge his way in the middle of Texas. Like a lot of others who dedicate themselves to rational agriculture based in soil science, Jonathan Cobb left his family’s land for a while, getting an education outside the ag school monolith, getting married and trying out urban life before coming full circle back to the land in 2007. He encountered an event in recent Texas history that felt apocalyptic at the time and still strains belief — the summer of 2011. As the worst Texas drought in about a century kicked in with a vengeance, temperatures exceeded 100 degrees for nearly three months, the land turned into brick and reservoirs dropped like a second-term president’s approval rating. As he relates, it forced a fresh look at all sorts of things. Along the way, a business Cobb ran with his wife, Jennifer Brasher, had to be folded, and he began a momentous transition away from row crops and into livestock. It also bears remembering that despite the influence wielded by the liberal enclave of Austin a mere hour away, rural Texas is not known for its open embrace of progressive ideas. For Jonathan’s refreshingly candid account of how he meets his challenges, read on.
ACRES U.S.A. Tell us about your neck of the woods near Rogers, Texas.
JONATHAN COBB. It’s Blackland prairie; really good, really rich, deep soils with a long history of farming there. My great-grandfather was a sharecropper since around 1900. My grandfather farmed it and then my Dad stayed. He was the youngest, and he stayed on the family farm. We were all gone when I decided to come back about eight years ago. I had been in Fort Worth doing landscape design and then came back and started farming.
ACRES U.S.A. Was the land still in the family?
COBB. Yes, we had rented out a lot of it. Dad and I farmed about 2,500 acres when I came back, and last year when he retired I cut back to 700 acres. Then I cut back to just the land that my parents own as well as some land my sister and I are purchasing, so it’s about 410 acres total that I’ll be farming now.
ACRES U.S.A. Was the 2011 drought a formative experience?
COBB. In some ways 2011 was easy because a lot of decisions were made for you, or you were forced into a change or a shift. Nothing even got started. 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. We certainly experienced that. I’ve measured them since I’ve gotten into soil health, and on a 103-degree day of ambient temperature, the surface of a bare Blackland soil gets to 155 degrees. You could cook a steak to a safe level. Obviously your soil bacteria are not going to be living at that stage, not the ones you want anyway. Where we had cover residue from no-till and cover crops, my soil surface was 77 degrees on the same day less than a mile away. It’s a drastic change in the environment that you’re creating out there.
ACRES U.S.A. What kind of cover did you use?
COBB. Wheat stubble, and the summer cover crop growing on top was sorghum/sudan/millet/cow pea/mung bean/buckwheat. And it was one of my early ones, so it wasn’t the best of cover crops.
ACRES U.S.A. Even before the apocalyptic shock of 2011, were you moving in a new direction?
COBB. 2011 was a knockout year. I was already drifting away, in a sense, from farming as we were. I just didn’t feel good or right about it. We were pretty typical for a commercial farm; we were planting GMOs, doing things that I didn’t really love but didn’t know any other way to do. Having 2011 come along just pushed me further out the door. Also, our house was on the market. We looked for work in Austin and would have moved there had our house sold. Then, I went to a meeting and encountered Ray Archuleta talking about soil health, and by lunchtime I knew what I was supposed to do. I’d been wrestling in my mind, and by the end of the day I knew that I was supposed to stay and be part of a paradigm shift, a change in agriculture. How that looked I didn’t have a clue, and it has certainly changed a lot since then. I thought it would just be a shift in row crop agriculture, but it has been so much more. Now we’re down to 400 acres and getting out of row crops altogether, moving into grazing systems because it builds carbon faster. We grow some specialty crops occasionally, but for now we really need to get the life back in our soil.
ACRES U.S.A. What do you do after a severe baking like that, when your soil is effectively dead?
COBB. We did conservation tillage before that, strip tillage, we still owned a disk. We plowed that year because, believe it or not, weeds actually still grew in 2011, not as big but they were out there, and we thought that was the most economical way to deal with them. Everything was tilled for the last time in 2011, and basically everything was reset because the soil was baked and tilled.
ACRES U.S.A. How does a young couple on the land make a go of it in your part of Texas, with the state leading the nation in job creation? Easier than some places but still challenging?
COBB. It’s definitely challenging. I don’t know that the farm economy is really that much better in Texas than other states as far as those factors that play a role in industrial job creation, corporate-type jobs. I don’t know that it has really changed that much. I think Texas probably sees the same trends as the rest of the country in agriculture. Our average age of farmers continues to rise and we’re not getting many new farmers. We make up less than 3 percent of the population, and the average age is something like 64. There aren’t enough farmers. That’s part of having to chase acres. Whenever your margins are small you have to get more acres, because it has become very competitive to get land and commodity prices are high. Most of our landowners hail from the cities, and they just want to maximize their returns. If somebody is willing to pay a little bit more for that land, they’ll go there. There is not a lot of loyalty. I didn’t encounter that myself, but I’ve heard stories.
ACRES U.S.A. Did you encounter severe runoff as the worst phase of the drought eased?
COBB. We have an infiltration problem instead of a runoff problem. We’re not absorbing and using rainfall. When you get a 2 or 3-inch rain and your soil doesn’t have the capacity to absorb it, you have a cap. Then it’s going to run off and take the layer of topsoil loosened by tillage away with it. You see the sheeting and removal of huge amounts of topsoil. It’s like if you scratch a brick and then wash it with water — it’s going to wash away all the stuff that you scratched off of the brick. You have that effect in the soil, especially clay soils, but what you want is a sponge. You want it to absorb everything and be able to hold it for use.
It’s not really so much about how much rain you get; it’s about how much rain can you use. I want every bit of the rain to absorb until my sponge is full, and then it will hold that moisture through the drought.
If you think about it, we usually have a drought every year.
ACRES U.S.A. True enough, a typical Texas summer is brutal even during a year of average rainfall.
COBB. If I can hold however many inches of rain I need in my soil to get me through those two or three months in the summer, then my plants can continue to grow and thrive. I really want that, but I hope we don’t hear people complaining that the reservoirs aren’t filling up because we’re soaking too much rain into our soils!
ACRES U.S.A. They’ll find a way to blame the farmer somehow. By the time this talk is published, the first Southern Soil Health Conference organized by Green Cover Seed will be history. What is it all about?
COBB. We want it focused on learning. Our sponsors are the Dixon Water Foundation, the Sand County Foundation, the Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation, NRDC, the Texas Grazing Land Conservation Initiative and No-Till on the Plains. We give them space for a booth, but no products are for sale. We’ve advertised it as “an educational experience for producers and landowners.” We put in the name intentionally because we hope to get some of them there. Getting them involved is really important. Some of them are already involved and some are just absentee. We’re bringing in some national speakers, and we have speakers from Texas to talk about the five principles of soil health. That’s what it is all about.
ACRES U.S.A. You have a powerful and underused argument when you remind landowners that they’ve made an investment, and allowing it to be trashed makes no sense.
COBB. You wouldn’t do that if you bought real estate in Austin. You wouldn’t buy a condo or a house and then pull the copper out of the walls and leave. You would be left with nothing. What we propose would be like having a renter who painted everything for you, kept it up, added curb appeal, and increased the value of the place. That’s a good analogy. Something I mention when I speak is this idea of endowment. My wife helped me develop it — she is an accountant and she worked with some endowments when we were in Fort Worth. An endowment is something set up to kind of be self-sustaining. It’s a gift, usually given to a university. They’re supposed to take the gift and make it continue; act as stewards of that endowment. We were given an endowment of land that is supposed to support human life, and it does if it’s stewarded properly, if we don’t take too much from it. What usually happens is that a school borrows against its endowment and builds a new football stadium, and then the endowment goes away. That’s more or less what we’ve done with the farming system. We’ve loaded up this debt. We’ve borrowed against the hope that we can hit that home run crop and pay off all our debts and get back to zero. Then it’s this cycle of borrowing from the land and never really giving back, never building the soil — instead of putting value back into the endowment, so that it can support our life and support mankind.
ACRES U.S.A. Is most of the land in your county leased?
COBB. I don’t know what the percentages are, but I would say most of it is. Most farmers probably own a couple hundred acres or maybe even a thousand, and the rest they lease. Some of them have been able to save up and purchase land as it comes available. Most of it is out of reach for farmers.
ACRES U.S.A. Do you think reaching out to absentee landowners about soil health could have a significant effect on how the land is treated?
COBB. I think it does. We’ve been beating on the door, trying to convince farmers to change the way they farm for too long. We need to educate more people — city people, landowners and farmers too, but instead of the old methodology — “try this tool, try that tool” — we really need to get to the why. I recently watched Simon Sinek’s TED talk about how we usually work from the “what” but we need to be working outward from the “why” — talking about why we’re doing this, about the important emotional basis, the gut feeling of why this is good, not just the results. The reason why we do it is at the center of it. He calls this the golden circle. A lot of times when you talk to farmers they want to know about the change in the yield or other short-term things. That’s one of the big challenges, that it’s a completely different system. It’s not a product. We’re so trained to think like, “if I add this to my field, it’s going to give me a 3 bushel boost.” It usually is in that 3-5 bushel threshold because that’s more or less immeasurable.
ACRES U.S.A. Perhaps landowners might be easier to educate than industrial farmers because they haven’t been taught the catechism?
COBB. I would agree with that. I’ve been around people who weren’t brought up in agriculture or didn’t go to an ag school. I’ve heard numerous guys say, “You should be glad that you didn’t go to this school or that school and study ag because you would have been indoctrinated into the paradigm.” You can’t possibly plant a seed out there that doesn’t have all this “protection” from nature because nature will kill what you’re doing. We’re fighting nature. That was another aha! moment for me and my wife. Even when we got into no-till and were planting the cover crops, to do monoculture row crops, we had to use chemicals because we weren’t using tillage. We had to use chemicals to terminate what we didn’t want there so we could plant what we did want there for 100 or 120 days. Then that would either die, or we had to kill it so we could plant the cover crop. Then the cover crop could grow so we could kill it later. It was a cycle of poison and grow, trying to fit our timing schedule into it. All this stuff wants to grow. Reading about holistic management has influenced us to use the holistic management-type of thinking. We have these solar panels that photosynthesize and take carbon out of the air and put it into the soil and feed the biology and make everything go. Every day we don’t have those solar panels out there, we’re wasting sun.
ACRES U.S.A. Like John Wayne used to say, we’re burning daylight.
COBB. Peter Donovan of the Soil Carbon Coalition calls it sunshine spillage. That really affected me. I would see this bare soil and think, “Wow, that’s a waste.”
Every time I see bare soil without a green plant I’m wasting an opportunity on my farm, so it’s really an efficiency leak. As a manager, I’m thinking that square foot is not being very useful because it could be growing a green plant.
Along with not wanting to use the chemicals, not wanting to use the tillage, it got to be, “Man, what are we doing this for?” We’re fighting nature, and it’s really expensive to fight nature. All this energy wants to go, and why would we spend money to suppress the energy to plant something else that we had to spend a lot of money on, so we could harvest it and then try to repair it later with a cover crop. I looked for a system that would pay for that harvesting. I want to grow as much biomass as possible, harvest it through cows, or sheep or whatever else will use it, but the ruminant animals are amazing. Then we follow those with chickens and other animals; move them across the land like the buffalo moved across the prairie, really fast, high density, with long rest periods. Let things grow and get deep-rooted, then come back and harvest them. Then we’re actually getting paid for control of the natural process. We’re letting it grow and maximize, then harvesting off the top so it’s not getting too much carbon and smothering itself. I’m a clumsy dance partner with nature right now, stepping on feet and doing things wrong. That’s really what I’ve learned from Gabe Brown.
ACRES U.S.A. What are you shooting for in terms of livestock?
COBB. We have a relatively small herd of Devon and Red Angus cross cows. We have some steers and calves now. We needed the animal impact. Cow-calf is probably not the right fit for us right now because we need cash flow and cow-calf is a cost-intensive, slow return on investment. What I want to do is custom graze other people’s cows on my land, get paid while I build my soil. “Green Fields Farm” is our beef label for selling grass-finished beef. I’m looking at getting into meat birds, broiler chickens, and pulling some chicken tractors across that same land. The benefit of being on a former row-crop field is that it’s flat, there are no trees in your way, so I can pull chicken tractors across 300 acres and that will build the fertility quickly.
ACRES U.S.A. And there’s a ready market for those.
COBB. There’s a very big market. Beef is getting close to pricing itself out of the American budget in our economy. If you look at trends, it’s just a fact that hamburger is the only thing growing in consumption, and it’s not growing nearly as fast as chicken. Pork is growing a little bit, but chicken and turkey definitely. Everywhere we go, when we talk about being a meat producer, people ask us if we have chicken. Lamb will probably be on the next year’s agenda. Sheep are good for weed control and things like that.
ACRES USA. What’s the story behind your old company, Living Cover Seed?
COBB. I knew I wanted to use cover crops, and I started looking for a company that would make custom blends of cover crops. I couldn’t find any in Texas. I found Green Cover Seed in Nebraska with an online search, and then looked up Keith and Brian Berns just to see what kind of guys they were. I figured that if I’m going to be doing this long-term, maybe it would be a good idea for me to try to get into that business, since I really feel like it is the future of agriculture and it’s going to grow — a wave is coming, and I might as well be opportunistic.
ACRES U.S.A. There was nobody in Texas at all?
COBB. There were companies that sold mixes, mostly for wildlife plots and things like that. They weren’t interested in me saying I want this seed, this seed and this seed, can you do that? They had their mixes that they wanted to sell. I called Keith and we really hit it off. He’s a great guy. We ordered our mixes from them and began discussing how I could possibly work with them. It started looking like maybe I’ll just start a sister company and they’ll help me out. They’re great people; they were willing to do all of our mixes for us when we were a separate company. That first year of Living Cover Seed, we really just sold seed while Keith and Brian did all the mixing. It never really got going, because by that summer demand was already so high we knew we wouldn’t be able to handle it. I love Keith but I didn’t want his life. I didn’t want to be running a big seed business — I wanted to be more like Gabe Brown, restoring the land. We all agreed the best thing would be to roll Living Cover Seed into Green Cover Seed. Living Cover Seed just went away. It still exists as an LLC. I work for Green Cover Seed as an event contractor, so to speak, a sales rep. I sell seed and then get commissions from them for my seed sales. I coordinate deliveries and sales, and I consult as well.
ACRES U.S.A. Does that provide an important supplement to your income?
COBB. It has been huge. It has been the main part of my income, and it has allowed me to survive the mistakes that I’ve made. I planted cowpeas in May, grew 130 acres of cowpeas. I didn’t know if they would make anything, and then they started late-blooming and really exploded with peas. It looked like they would be great, but then they were very viney because they were getting so old. We mowed some of them to plant, and we did some experiments in some small spots. Then it frosted, and they just kept growing and putting on pods. We tried to harvest them a couple of days ago and it’s not going to work out. If I didn’t have the other income it would be hard to recover from the loss. Going big in something is probably my nature; 130 acres instead of just trying an acre to see if we can harvest them, but it was great for the soil. They’re legumes, they’re putting in nitrogen. We are getting nitrogen that we otherwise would have to buy. We’ll get volunteer seeds come up in spring, a lot of them. My hope is that we’ll plant black oats on top of those if it doesn’t get too wet — we are growing those for Keith.
ACRES U.S.A. Have you found other opportunities in your transition?
COBB. What I hope to do as I get out of row crops is to help some of my neighbors, if they’re willing. We grew mung beans successfully behind wheat, and there are alternative crops for the cover crop industry that we can grow in this region. That gives farmers an opportunity to grow something besides corn or cotton or milo or whatever commodities they’re growing. We can offer them an acre’s contract that says we will give you 40 cents per pound, for instance, for whatever these 100 acres produce. Yes, there is risk because there is no insurance umbrella, but the reward is greater too. I’m excited about giving people a chance to grow something else. A lot of these can be double-cropped behind wheat as well, so they can raise wheat under the umbrella of insurance, then plant and harvest these late summer crops. That gives us a good supply chain as well, working with customers who come back with supply for our seed.
ACRES U.S.A. How could insurance rules be reformed to benefit what you, Keith and Brian are doing?
COBB. There have been some good changes since Gail Fuller in Kansas had to fight for his rights after they denied him for having cover crops grow for too long, according to the Risk Management Agency. He fought that and won. The RMA people have since changed a lot of the way that is written. To be quite honest, I think a lot of it just needs to go away. It’s a crutch.
ACRES U.S.A. You think it’s actually holding people back?
COBB. It’s holding back innovation. It’s holding back an industry from being as it should in a capitalistic economy. If things don’t work, they shouldn’t be propped up. We need to have systems and farms that are actually profitable on their own without being propped up. I’m not saying you shouldn’t have disaster relief in the event of an actual disaster. That needs to be there. It’s important to be there. We wouldn’t be here if my dad didn’t have that type of relief in the past. But all the guys who are my mentors don’t take insurance. They haven’t for years, and some of them never did. They figured out how to make it work and how to be profitable. One of the things that really made me want to listen to those guys is that they legitimately were not trying to sell me anything. They are relaxed, they don’t have the stress. When I went to Dave Brandt’s, we were in a barn full of farmers, about 400 farmers. You could just tell how Gabe and Dave stand out. Sure, they have their stresses, but they’re not checking their phones every five minutes for the commodity price to see how much money they lost or if they need to sell or whatever.
ACRES U.S.A. They know something others don’t.
COBB. For you to hear somebody say they don’t have crop insurance, the reaction is like, “What? You can’t farm without crop insurance.” Just like you can’t live without health insurance. We’ve just accepted that as the norm that you’re going to have a claim every couple of years, and that’s just the disaster claims. That’s not even the subsidies which are interwoven into the commodity prices to keep things going.
ACRES U.S.A. It’s not so much a farming game as a numbers game.
COBB. I think another big change for us became whenever we started seeing what we produce as food. The more we learned about what we ate, we knew we need sources of really good, clean food and this isn’t it. There is a disconnect. It becomes about weight and not nutrients. All you really care about is having the most bushels per acre and hoping you get a good price. There’s a disconnect from how I treat this crop, what this crop contains, whether or not it has proteins from a pesticide injected into it so it’s labeled as a poison technically, and whether it’s labeled as an antibiotic as well. “Do you want that to be on the plate of your daughter?” is how it was presented to me by somebody who asked that question. Okay, that changes things. It’s that holistic thought that every decision I make is going to have an effect down the road. Typically you have to keep the bugs off your grain somehow. So you grow the grain, you put it in the truck, and unless it’s going in the bin you spray it with something to keep the bugs off. You have to protect your investment. Which is true, it will get eaten up if you have weevils. How do you manage that? I think human nature is that you read the label, and it says to put this much, but I want to be sure so I’m going to put a little extra. You can justify it with studies that say it’s perfectly fine and safe, but deep down you know that it’s probably not a good thing. Aside from all the debates about whether chemicals or GMOs are bad, just look at soil health and the nutrient density that has been lost.
ACRES U.S.A. Do you have high hopes for central and south central Texas as a center of sustainable farming?
COBB. I think it will be a while. You have to travel to become an expert. Right now close peers have been part of the struggle, and it has been hard. I think most people think I’m an idiot and I’m ruining my dad’s farm by letting it grow up in weeds. I don’t know what I’m talking about; it’s just some stupid kid who got put offtrack by some ridiculous movement. I know that this is part of the struggle because I’ve talked with guys ahead of me. Dave Brandt — those 400 people who were at his place that fall, they were there because of the 2012 drought in the Midwest. He said they had field days before that and nobody would show up. For 30 years he was the village idiot. I don’t really want to be the village idiot for 30 years, but I’m still going to do what I’m doing regardless. I think it will come around. There is always that percentage of early adopters, and we’re in that chasm in between early adopters and it being widely accepted. The innovators were there — the Gabes, the Daves and so many others — and then there are early adopters like myself and a growing group of young farmers, and some old farmers as well, who have adopted this way of doing things. The rest are sort of looking and watching to see if it’s real. They’ve been reading about it, but they’re watching to see if it is actually working or if it’s just a bunch of hullabaloo. There is a battle within the scientific community — lobbyists and money are being thrown at research to say this stuff doesn’t work, nature can’t possibly sustain itself, and you need our products. There is going to be pushback, that’s going to continue. You’re going to see billions of dollars spent to fight this idea that you can actually manage living things and you don’t need to spend a whole lot of money. The farmer can actually become wealthy — not billionaire wealthy, but wealthy. To me wealthy would be my wife not having to work, we have a house that we live in and is paid for, we don’t have any debt, and we can take a trip every so often — an enjoyable life. I don’t have to be rich. Not to say that that’s bad in and of itself but for me that would be fine.
ACRES U.S.A. Work hard and take a few weeks off.
COBB. I take great enjoyment in just being out there with the cows and moving them and seeing nature work. It’s cool. It’s like a conductor of a symphony who is up there with some 5th grade band students. He might get enjoyment, but if they hit it and they start playing the notes right, then they get through the whole score and it’s perfect, he is satisfied. It’s what his life is.
This article appears in the February 2015 issue of Acres U.S.A.