Cochran was born in Carlsbad, California in 1947. He studied child development and European intellectual history at the University of California, Santa Cruz in the late 1960s, where he became interested in alternative farming methods. Cochran began his commercial farming career growing strawberries using conventional methods, but switched to organic methods after he was nearly poisoned by pesticides and, as a result of this experience, questioned the effect that the chemicals had on his workers.
He started Swanton Berry Farm in 1983 near Santa Cruz, California and subsequently developed a wide range of new methods, which include crop rotations, such as broccoli and brussels sprouts, trap crops such as mustard and alfalfa, and the use of natural predators, to control strawberry specific pests and diseases. His mostly intuitively developed methods were later verified scientifically in a series of studies by University of California, Davis plant pathologist Krishna Subbarao and his collaborators.
Cochran originally found it difficult to get funding for his experiments from the California Strawberry Commission, stating that "The industry blockaded our efforts to get money to research alternatives, and spent a lot of money in Washington making sure our proposals didn't get funded." Cochran's methods have been credited for making a large-scale commercial organic strawberry industry possible in California. Cochran was also the first, and still one of the few, California organic farmers to have a contract with the United Farm Workers.
- "Strawberry grower shows how to make a profit without poisons". grist.org. 26 April 2011. Retrieved 8 August 2011.
- "Jim Cochran: Swanton Berry Farm (oral history)". University of California, Santa Cruz. Retrieved 8 August 2011.
- Samuel Fromartz (2005). Organic Inc.: Natural Foods and How They Grew. Harcourt. ISBN 978-0-15-603242-1.
- Krishna V. Subbarao and J. C. Hubbard (1996). "Interactive Effects of Broccoli Residue and Temperature on Verticillium dahliae Microsclerotia in Soil and on Wilt in Cauliflower". Phytopathology 86 (12).