Home / Government and politics / The Non-Voter: ‘Farmer Jeff’ Loses Faith In Government After Father Dies In VA Hospital

The Non-Voter: ‘Farmer Jeff’ Loses Faith In Government After Father Dies In VA Hospital

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At 14, Jeff Mays packed his dad’s bleeding stomach with gauze — enough to fill a 16-ounce Coke can.

His dad, Darrell Mays, gained almost 300 pounds after leaving the Marines and had an abdominal surgery to remove some of the fat in the early 1980s. 

“They cut him from belly button to belly button, all the way around,” he says.

He was a big guy; 565 pounds, Jeff says.

Jeff is now 49 and living in Hawthorne. He’s never voted. He grew up during the MTV Rock the Vote era but never registered. He was too busy taking care of his dad.

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Jeff was a troublemaker at school. He would get into fights with people who made fun of his dad’s weight, and he’d get kicked out of class before the period even started.

Eventually, he needed to care for his father more than he needed to attend school, so he asked the administration to transfer his paperwork to another school and never went back. He was 15.

Jeff supported himself and his father by working odd jobs like buying and selling government surplus equipment and logging hours at his uncle’s motorcycle shop. 

Farmer Jeff sits on a tractor. “The government doesn’t care, and they’re not looking out for the veterans that they promised to take care of,” he said. (Valerie Lyons/WUFT News)

In 1999, he started farming. He called himself Farmer Jeff and learned the business through trial and error and YouTube videos. He later attended UF/IFAS farming classes in Live Oak, where he fell in love with hydroponics.

Darrell needed someone to take care of him while Jeff was farming. Eventually he sought help from Veterans Affairs.

The VA contracted with nursing homes to care for veterans at the time, and Darrell was sent to a home in Gainesville, where he lived for just 56 days.

In the first week, Jeff says his dad contracted Pseudomonas aeruginosa, a bacterium commonly spread by healthcare workers. 

The bacteria spread to Darrell’s blood.

The nursing home transferred Darrell to a hospital March 23, 2000, ultimately leaving him without medication for several days.

Darrell died June 30 of that year in a VA hospital, but Jeff blamed the nursing home for his father’s infection and death.

“I wanted to hurt everybody in that nursing home,” Jeff says.

When his dad was dying, Jeff went around to politicians asking them how they planned to help veterans, specifically his dad. He says no one lifted a finger.

“The government doesn’t care, and they’re not looking out for the veterans that they promised to take care of,” he says.

Jeff avoids the polls to this day. He says his experiences with politicians in the past proves that they’re only in it for themselves. If they aren’t going to care about him, why should he bother caring about them?

Jeff Mays. (Valerie Lyons/WUFT News)

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“The government doesn’t care, and they’re not looking out for the veterans that they promised to take care of.”

Jeff’s farm in Hawthorne was robbed last year. His dad’s ashes were emptied on the floor, and his flag box was ripped open.

“My buddy called me and said he just went to my property to check on my farm pig and all my stuff is gone,” he says. “So, my tractor, all my equipment — pretty much my whole living.”

Since then, he’s pitched his Hydro Ag Systems business, which grows microgreens — nutrient-dense greens harvested right after sprouting — to big names like Whole Foods and Sysco. He says they were interested but wouldn’t fund him until he met their requirements for production. But Jeff’s business is small scale, and he couldn’t meet their requirements without funding.

So he went smaller. He started working with Brooke Gamewell, a nurse practitioner at the University of Florida, to sell his microgreens on Brooke’s online store Tranquility Marketplace and in local farmers markets. But he still has to grow product to sell, and to do that commercially, he needs funding.

In early October, he went to an organic farm to ask for a job. They turned him away because he came without an appointment. He stopped at a produce stand on his way home and met Eugene Lewis.

Eugene, 61, and his wife, Gwendolyn Lewis, 64, are retired army veterans. Eugene started the stand about a year ago. He sells things like tomatoes, watermelons and cantaloupes along with canned sodas and bagged ice.

Eugene Lewis bends over to find a good place to dig. (Valerie Lyons/WUFT News)

Jeff wants to help Eugene expand the stand, so he set up strawberry plants in homemade vertical growth containers. He also plans to bring out a large shed he calls a “pod” to grow microgreens. Eugene says he’s wary of how fast Jeff is building on his produce stand, but he’s open to change.

Eugene, unlike Jeff, votes. He says his family and friends would look down on him if he didn’t because African-Americans fought for the right to vote. But he understands Jeff’s stance.

“Why would he vote? They never took care of his issues,” Eugene says.

About Sarah Stanley

Sarah is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.

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