Winding my way from Reno, down some of the most scenic highways in California, redwood, pine and fir greened the way to Heaven and Earth Farm as I traveled to meet legendary farmer, teacher and soil scientist Amigo Bob Cantisano. A ninth generation Californian, he bears the genetics of a fearless Spanish Lieutenant responsible for the first land route between New Spain and Alta California circa the late 1700's.
Walking the grounds of his farm, he beams as he introduces me to his interns. Bob uses the farm to teach and to invent sustainable farming techniques to improve productivity. He is a serious educator on organic solutions to everyday farming problems: "It's a myth that organics don't yield as much as conventional practices. My client's farms are yielding more than they ever had when farmed with chemicals."
I first saw Amigo Bob lecturing 1,700 people at the 2012 EcoFarm conference, an annual three day event that he founded 33 years ago to inform farmers of cutting edge, sustainable practices. Just off my full immersion, one-year, organic farm internship on the east coast, I was curious about the western states' sustainable movement. Ingrained in the east coast manner of sharing, but not too much, I found Bob's west coast attitude the polar opposite. On and off stage, Amigo Bob can't give enough...
His delivery is an unrelenting, big flavor barrage of information nourishing those thirsty to employ ecologically and environmentally sound practices. Battling newly acquired east coast formality, I had to get over my resistance to Amigo Bob's "hippyness:" burly sideburns, wooly dreadlocks, a handcrafted Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs felt hat, shorts and Tevas in all weather... an unusual impression for a modern day hero.
Amigo Bob lectured on "How to Read a Soils Test" to a packed room of newbies and the experienced, including an organic grape grower registered as #2 back when organic certification first started. Bob had on hand a comprehensive book that he had written: Know Your Soil: A Handbook For Understanding And Utilizing a Soil Analysis For Organic Growing. I made sure that I got one of the few copies as my go to resource for my own six-month bio-nutrient dense soils study.
Bob's contributions since the late 1960s are stunning:
Founder: The Ecological Farm Conference the oldest, largest sustainable-agriculture gathering in the Western U.S.
Founder: We The People Natural Foods Coop
Co-founder: California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF)
Farming across the state of California
Founder: Peaceful Valley Farm Supply, a reliable source of organic inputs
The first organic advisory business in the U.S.
Years as the only independent organic farming adviser on the west coast
Founder: The Felix Gillet Institute
Operates Organic Ag Advisors, teaching organic farmers and those making the transition from conventional farming for the past two decades
Geographically, he advises more than 400 organic, transitional and family farmers and gardeners in California, Arizona, Oregon, Washington, Nevada, Hawaii, Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, Spain, France and Costa Rica. His clients range from small specialty growers to producers of large scale, mainstream crops, in the aggregate farming more than 160,000 of organic and transitional crops.
Back to the present... Amigo Bob notes that the amount of paperwork to document organic practices is burdensome: "While it legitimizes organics, the complexity and paperwork required of farming with a benign system rather than using toxic chemicals, doesn't make sense."
Bob's not an advocate of government involvement in organic certification standards: "One size doesn't fit all and has drawbacks. However it has a purpose and I support certification as a practical reality in the market."
I asked whether he considers purchasing from a farmer at a farmer's market, who says he doesn't use toxic chemicals but can't afford the annual organic certification fees.
"The farmers that are going the extra mile to keep records... I know they are held accountable and that they are subsidized with 75 percent of the organic certification costs. I'd buy from the certified farmer first."
"If consumers wish to pay a premium, the local market will continue to grow, " but Amigo Bob acknowledges the local movement has its economic limitations. " Size is where the rubber meets the road," and he admits that his own farm can't compete in the economics of scale.
Amigo Bob doesn't see organic food as too expensive, but rather that conventional food is too cheap and reckless... that it wreaks havoc on healthy eco-systems, harms our health, exploits seasonal workers, destroys topsoil and toxically relies on petroleum to operate.
Related to size though, Amigo Bob hopes big business gets into organics in a bigger way. "Both Organic and Conventional farming practices need each other; they must learn from and grow together..."
Currently, the largest organic supplier in the nation is Cal Organics. Formerly conventional, they are now fully organic, farming 60,000 acres with sustainable practices. Bob was their original organic farming advisor.
As the demand for organic foods increases, there will be more large and small scale organic farmers to meet the demand, eventually making it more affordable. Consumers need to buy from local farmers whenever possible and support larger organic businesses that show true efforts, not just the cheapest."
Amigo Bob's reach and influence is legendary -- so much so that it continues to appear in unexpected ways, at unexpected places. So expect to hear more about how deep his roots really grow. More later from a convert... Bruce and Barbara Neyers of Neyers Vineyard.