The 2011 drought in Texas was the worst in recorded history and it lasted until 2015. The ground was so dry that Jonathan Cobb, a 4th generation farmer in Blackland Prairie of central Texas, couldn’t even get crops planted. His 2,500-acre conventional row crop operation was already struggling financially through a treadmill of increasingly more inputs and long hours with little or no yield improvement. So he made the hard decision to leave farming and move to the city.
But before he left, he attended a workshop with renowned soil scientist Ray Archuleta, who focused Jonathan’s attention for the first time on soil health. Archuleta demonstrated the water-holding capacity of healthy, biologically active aggregated soils compared to a typical compacted soil that crumbled and eroded when water was poured on it. This demonstration opened Cobb’s mind to a whole new way of approaching agriculture. It gave him hope that farming even through extreme drought was possible.
There was hope that nature actually did exist on its own before man started cultivating it … things that seem obvious, like a forest ecology that nobody fertilizes a forest … of course it works, it can be very abundant. And so there was a hope in that message, but there was still this big chasm to cross between how do we get there because nobody is doing it here [NRCS 2015: 5:20min].
Jonathan and his wife Kaylyn crossed that chasm by downsizing the farm to 450 acres, getting rid of the tillage equipment, learning about Holistic Management grazing, and replacing row crops with cover crops and multi-species grazing systems, including beef, lamb, pork and poultry. Now their focus is on building soil health, and they have lush pastures to show for it. Texas still gets hot, but cover crops cool down the soil:
I’ve measured [the hot days] 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 USA 2015].
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. – Johnathan Cobb [Acres USA 2015]
They direct-market their products online and deliver it to designated pick-up locations in the area. And they enjoy what they do: “If we can make a living and stay here then we couldn’t ask for anything more,” Jonathan says [Voth 2018].
Jonathan Cobb profile: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fjdVQPBBqXQ
A farmer and a farm are saved by soil health:
Interview: Forging a better path – Texas Farmer Jonathan Cobb embraces shift from conventional to biological-based practices
Acres USA, 2015, Interview: Forging a better path - Texas Farmer Jonathan Cobb embraces shift from conventional to biological-based practices, February 2015, http://www.ecofarmingdaily.com/interview-forging-better-path-texas-farmer-jonathan-cobb-embraces-shift-conventional-biological-based-practices/.
Voth, Cathy, 2018, A farmer and a farm are saved by soil health, On Pasture, retrieved Jan. 22, 2019: https://onpasture.com/2018/02/19/a-farmer-and-a-farm-is-saved-by-soil-health/.