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Heroes of the Harvest

Jonathan Cobb holding grain near his tractor

Jonathan Cobb says that with a new focus on soil health, "We got rid of all of the tillage equipment, and just dove in,” with cover crops. Photo: Ron Nichols.

NOTE: This week on the USDA Blog, we’ll feature the stories of America’s Harvest Heroes who, like farmers across the nation, are working this harvest season to secure the bounty of healthy food American agriculture is renowned for. From laying the foundation for the next generation of farmers putting down roots in rural America, supporting the fruit and vegetable growers who are helping to build healthier communities, bolstering new markets for the products of agricultural innovation, to harvesting renewable energy that is made in Rural America, with USDA’s support our farmers are yielding strong results for every American. For these reasons and more, America’s Harvest Heroes deserve our thanks.

Texas Producer Changes his Mind about Leaving the Farm

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.

“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 time, he and his wife Kaylyn put their house on the market and prepared to move, abandoning a century-old tradition of Cobb family farming.

Jonathan Cobb with cattle

Using diverse cover crops and diverse animal grazing, the Cobbs are building soil health on their farm. Photo: Ron Nichols.

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. But before he could complete the chore, Cobb found himself “trapped” in a soil health workshop featuring NRCS’ Ray Archuleta and Willie Durham.

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.

Since that fateful day, 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.

“We planted over a thousand acres of cover crops the very next year, got rid of all of the tillage equipment, and just dove in,” he says. 

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.

The United Nations General Assembly has designated 2015 as the International Year of Soils. USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service was founded as a result of the Dust Bowl of the 1930’s. For 80 years, the agency, originally named the Soil Conservation Service, has worked in close partnerships with farmers and ranchers, local and state governments, and other federal agencies to maintain healthy and productive working landscapes.

Jonathan Cobb's farm with cover crops

The Cobb’s have downsized their farm from 2,500 acres to 450 and transitioned from row crops to cover crops, like those seen here, with multi-species livestock grazing systems. Photo: Ron Nichols.

3 Responses to “Heroes of the Harvest”

  1. Corey says:

    Nice story, but I thought “the agency, originally named the Soil Conservation Service,” was originally named the “Soil Erosion Service” under Hugh Hammond Bennett, the father of soil conservation in the US and that SCS was it’s second name.

  2. Ben [USDA Moderator] says:

    @Corey – thank you for your interest in NRCS History. The Soil Erosion Service was established within the Department of the Interior by the National Industrial Recovery Act (P.L. 73-67) passed in June 1933. Hugh Hammond Bennett was named Chief in September 1933. SES established demonstration projects in critically eroded areas to show farmers the benefits of conservation.

    In response to the events during the Dust Bowl, on April 27, 1935, Congress passed the Soil Conservation Act (P.L. 74-46), in which it recognized that “the wastage of soil and moisture resources on farm, grazing, and forest lands . . . is a menace to the national welfare,” and it directed the Secretary of Agriculture to establish the Soil Conservation Service (SCS) as a permanent agency in the USDA.

    Hugh Hammond Bennett was named the first Chief of the Soil Conservation Service upon its creation. In 1994, Congress changed SCS’s name to the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to better reflect the broadened scope of the agency’s concerns. While Hugh Hammond Bennett served as the first Chief of both the SES and the SCS and the agencies had missions involving conservation of soil, the SCS was created to address broader resource issues and conservation measures, absorbing the SES functions as well as those of other units within the Department of Agriculture.

  3. Louise McPherson says:

    Thanks for posting this wonderful story of USDA helping folks put their roots deeper into the soil! Ray Archuletta and his team are amazing, truly dedicated folks who are on a passionate mission to make our soil and her people healthy again and I just want to commend their efforts. Thank you, Jonathan Cobb, for being in the right place at the right time (I call that a God thing!) and letting your heart be pierced by the soil health arrow in order to save your farm and to preserve that way of life for the generations of Cobb farmers to come after you. My best wishes for huge successes in your efforts. Many blessings and a happy Thanksgiving to all of you!

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