How to Start Farming: Q&A With Farmer Jay McCobb
Interest in farming and gardening is on the rise. In line with the national trend, community gardens and school garden projects are starting to pop up all over South Florida. Just last week, Fort Lauderdale city commissioners approved a code designed to bring back urban agriculture.
Given these circumstances, it seems fairly obvious that many people would like to create a more sustainable, localized food system. Problem is -- not many people know how.
Last week, we introduced you to Jason "Farmer Jay" McCobb, our poster boy for the truly sustainable, local, organic movement. We also showed you his chicken coop and his pig, Pearl. Here, he sits down with us to fill us in on the details of his version of farming. And he divulges how you can start an sustainable movement of your own.
Clean Plate Charlie: Say I'm a novice, looking to get into organic farming. Which reading materials would you suggest?
Farmer Jay: Subscribe to Acres USA; it's a monthly publication. They also have their own publishing house, which prints lots and lots of books. They've even brought back books that were out of publication. Right now, I'm reading Sepp Holzer's Permaculture. Great book -- I highly recommend it. Also, check out the Rodale Institute website.
Are there any local farmers -- yourself not included -- that are good resources for aspiring sustainable gardeners or farmers?
Eeek, is there anyone else sustainable?
Many people get discouraged from gardening in South Florida. It's not exactly your normal growing climate. Which crops would you suggest for beginners?
Fast-growing crops like lettuces, greens, herbs, radishes, edible flowers, or microgreens. It depends on the time of year, but we should look to grow things well adapted to the tropics. There are lots of things that people don't know about that are major food crops in tropical countries like: chaya, malanga, yucca, malabar spinach, Chinese noodle beans, and Okinawa spinach -- to name a few.
Let's pretend someone wants to get serious and farming to the next level -- you know, go pro. Where would you start? And what does that look like from a financial standpoint?
Just grow something -- anywhere -- in containers, a raised bed, in your yard, at a friend's house, or hit up a nursery or landscape company (like me).
Financially, it depends on the type of farm and resources already in place, such as irrigation, etc. Tractors and equipment can be borrowed initially from nice neighbors -- hopefully. Otherwise, you can usually pick up used equipment pretty cheaply. Depending on the property's infrastructure, land leases for about $500 an acre per month. You really have to forecast how long it will take to begin harvesting. That's obviously when you start bringing in the money. Some crops take three months; chickens take six months to begin laying, and so on.
What is the best way to bring your products to market? Restaurants? Farmers' markets? CSAs?
You need to try all of them. But restaurants are great, because they buy at higher volume.
What were the best words of advice you were given when you were starting out?
If you have a dollar to spend in your garden, spend it in a positive way -- Bob Cannard, my mentor, said that. He never had an adversity on his farm. Positive plus positive is always positive. It is much more harmful to use negative chemicals. If you fight with Mother Nature, she will always win. Why not work with her?
Any other advice for someone looking to follow in your footsteps?
Be patient! I believe people get discouraged because plants work on a different time scale than what we're used to. Our culture is spoiled by having immediate results. We are extremely busy these days; if there are not immediate results, people lose interest. We are working on Mother Nature's clock, and she is never in a hurry. Farming is 50 percent science and 50 percent art. You don't need to know every bug, plant, disease, or chemistry. All you need to have is common sense and good observation skills. Think of your garden like making a new friend: You have to be gentle and watch the responses to your actions. Take care of Mother Nature and she will reward you tenfold.
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