As I exit my car, I can see him approaching from the distance. A tall, strapping man wearing jeans, a buttoned-down shirt, and a wide-brimmed farmer's hat walks up to greet me. If he does not fit the bill for tall, dark, and handsome, I don't know who does.
Not exactly the image one would conjure when thinking of a farmer.
Then again, breaking down stereotypes is kind of his thing. Boca Raton-based Farmer Jay of Farmer Jay Organics wants to change the image of farming. And he wants to save the world in the process.
Getting excited now? Too bad. He has an equally awesome wife, Denia, the farm's "produce chick," who is in charge of Farmer Jay's sales and marketing. She runs the farm booth and basket program.
Tampa native Jason "Farmer Jay" McCobb moved to South Florida in the late '90s. In 2006, he owned a beverage distribution business but says he "just got kind of tired of it and closed it up, then went and worked in a nursery and landscaping business in Boynton." He stayed for three years, learning all the plants -- or, rather, as he says, "learning how to poison plants." Increasingly frustrated by the conventional process of caring for greenery, which is ultrareliant on chemical pesticides and fertilizers, he moved on to the Breakers Resort, where he was hired as a lead gardener to start an organic landscaping project.
This is when things started coming together. He began learning about organic farming techniques and composting methods. "I started really studying it. I found that organic was the safest alternative, but I was still seeing a big problem." Even if he bought organic products and organic fertilizers, they were often packaged and trucked across the country, thereby using plastics and fossil fuels. "It wasn't sustainable," McCobb says. "You're robbing one land to feed another. I still had this desire to learn how to do it ourselves." He knew he had to start using local resources.
His next stop: the kitchens next door. First, he asked chefs from the Breakers' on-site restaurants if he could have food scraps to recycle as compost. That started a relationship with the kitchen staff. He then asked to take over the herb garden, which at the time was purely ornamental, and began planting herbs and vegetables of his own. He began bringing his produce to the chefs, who loved the fresh products, and the expansion of the farm-fresh cycle took off from there.
To learn even more about the farm-to-table system, the Breakers sent McCobb to Berkeley, California, to learn from the pioneers at farm-to-table meccas such as Chez Panisse and the French Laundry. He met Alice Waters (who founded Chez Panisse in 1971) and Bob Cannard, a farmer who supplies her ingredients. Jay's three months in California brought him to an epiphany. "This wasn't just a small Breakers thing," he realized. "I needed to let people know about it. The whole time I was out there, I was dreaming up this whole thing in which every component fed its own thing."
Upon his return, McCobb started knocking on local farmers' doors to develop a self-supporting system using local resources. As fate would have it, he found Beth and Craig Peschel, owners of a small Delray Beach farm and Boca Raton's Ellenville Garden Center. In November 2010, he started growing produce on their land, and that was the beginning of Farmer Jay.
He urges other aspiring farmers to follow suit. He says, "I want 50 more people like me doing this." Apparently the task is not as daunting as it seems. "Many of the local nurseries have been hit hard by the economy. So many are going out of business right now that they're willing to subdivide their property. It's all about starting small. I just want to inspire people to try and grow something. Even just start with herbs."
Farmer Jay's business now includes edible landscaping (people can hire him to plan and construct herb gardens), organic education (he goes to schools and also hosts kids and adults on the farm), and his actual farm (he recently added 47 laying hens, three roosters, and a pig). While McCobb makes his living off his farm, his main goal is to work toward localizing our food system. The education and promotion of home gardens is an integral component of that. The landscaped kitchen gardens have become the most lucrative part of his business.
Overall, McCobb wants to change the image of farming. "Seventy percent of farmers are over the age of 65. Most of their kids don't want to go into the business. The evolution to organic, local farming is all about the next generation. It's starting to get better. We're starting to get these better ideas about how to do things naturally, but it's the kids that do it."
Just a hunch, but with his good looks, charming personality, and passion for sustainability, we're guessing that Farmer Jay might just be the perfect frontman for the new farming movement.
If you want to catch a glimpse, he can be found at Ellenville Garden Center's Moonlit Farmer's Market every Thursday from 4 to 8 p.m.
Know any other hot farmers we should introduce to the world? If so, email us: [email protected]
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