The Soil Savior

In Texas, one young farmer is bucking tradition by putting soil health above all else. The result? Water-retaining, nutrient-rich pay dirt.

Jonathan Cobb tried to get away from the family farm; he really did. After college, he moved to the city and gave a career in marketing a shot. But in the end, it was hopeless: Farming is in his blood.

Jonathan Cobb Image by Ron Nichols/USDA-NRCS

Cobb's great-grandfather began sharecropping in central Texas’s Blackland Prairie more than a century ago, and someone with his last name has been tending that land ever since. The Cobbs have seen more than a few droughts, but none with quite the same severity as a five-year dry spell that reached its peak in 2011—the driest year in Texas since record-keeping began.

The one-two punch of drought and nationwide economic recession hurt. But as Cobb tells it, that rough time (the drought finally ended with a torrential downpour in 2015) also knocked something loose: the erroneous belief that there was only one way to farm. "It allowed us to break the groupthink," Cobb says, "to not just do what everybody else was doing.”

The Cobbs have downsized their farm and transitioned from row crops to cover crops Image by Ron Nichols/USDA-NRCS

Cobb was already open to new ideas—especially considering that he wasn't even sure he wanted to help his father manage the family's 2,500 acres in the first place. But his attitude began to change in 2007, when he reluctantly attended a daylong seminar on the impact of something called “regenerative agriculture.” It was, Cobb says, the start of a new direction. He and his wife stopped dreaming of a farm-free life in Austin and, joined by his sister and her husband, dug in.

The seminar introduced Cobb to a set of land-management principles that, while new to him, are actually as ancient as the concept of our ecosystem. The science behind regenerative agriculture can get pretty complicated, but the basic idea is blessedly simple: Promote life and abundance in the ground in order to promote greater life and abundance above it. That means, in Cobb’s words, “viewing the soil as a living thing, not just as a medium for plants.”

Through various means—which can include mulching, rotational grazing, and cutting back on tillage and herbicides—regenerative farmers foster greater microbial activity in the soil, which vastly increases its carbon levels. This then boosts vital natural processes like photosynthesis and water retention. Every 1 percent increase in soil organic matter, for example, allows an acre of soil to retain 20,000 more gallons of water.

"That can be the difference between profit and loss during dry years," says NRDC agricultural policy analyst Claire O'Connor. She says recent studies show that farmers who planted cover crops—a regenerative-agriculture technique whereby noncommercial crops are temporarily cultivated to prevent soil erosion—tend to enjoy higher yields than farmers who didn't.

"In fact," O'Connor says, "during the infamous 2012 drought, the yield benefit from cover crops was most pronounced in those areas that were hardest hit." Regenerative agriculture isn't just a defense against the extreme weather brought on by climate change: It might also help fight climate change—primarily by trapping carbon in the soil, where it's incredibly beneficial, and by keeping it out of the atmosphere, where it can be incredibly harmful.

By switching his focus from what comes out of the soil to what goes into it, Cobb opened the door for other changes. He began to question whether growing commodity crops, as his family had always done, represented the best route. They required so much extra work, such as tilling and spraying crops with herbicide. “The more I learned, the more it felt silly to be fighting all the energy that nature bestows upon the earth” through natural processes, he says. “Instead, we started asking, 'How can we work with nature to encourage life?'”

Jonathan Cobb uses diverse cover crops and animal grazing to build soil health Image by Ron Nichols/USDA-NRCS

That question, ultimately, led to an even bigger one: Why are we even growing crops in the first place? What if, Cobb wondered, he concentrated on maximizing the health of his soil and planted an array of plants and grasses that cows would find tasty? “I wondered whether we should just be raising animals,” he says, “because letting them harvest anything and everything that grows is among the best ways to build carbon in the soil and promote abundance.”

So in 2013—on a 450-acre parcel of the family homestead he currently comanages with his wife, sister, and brother-in-law—Cobb started Green Fields Farm, which produces grass-finished beef and pastured eggs. As their soil improves and customer base grows, they plan to add pork, lamb, and broiler chickens to the list. In just two years, the soil on which Cobb is “experimenting” with regenerative-agriculture techniques had already started displaying higher concentrations of carbon and organic nitrogen and increased water retention—and the landscape above it is positively teeming with lush biomass.

Cobb doesn’t mind that some of his neighbors see him “as the crazy kid who’s ruining his dad’s farm by letting it grow up in weeds,” so long as he knows that grazing on all that vegetation are happy, healthy, free-roaming cows. “We've set the table for microbes,” says Cobb. “They come and they eat. Diversity produces resilience. And life begets life.”

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