Bob Cannard has long had a love affair with weeds. He believes their energy is vital to keeping balance on the land. So weeds like mustard and amaranth can be found all over his Petaluma farm property, which isn’t your typical, tidy row crop operation.
Cannard likes to keep things a little wild as he works with nature rather than fighting against it; in the process he grows some of the most highly regarded greens around. He calls them happy, healthy plants.
“Fifty percent for nature, 50 percent for people” is his motto, meaning half his crops are grown for human consumption and half for soil improvement. Those weeds are welcome, left to grow as they please and eventually plowed back into the ground, fertilizing the soil. Who needs artificial inputs or chemical pesticides?
At Green String Farm, Cannard raises sought-after crops in nutrient-dense dirt along with beneficial bugs. A harmonious environment allows strong crops to thrive; it’s a survival-of-the-fittest situation, explains Cannard, who grew up working in his family’s nursery in the same county in which he still lives.
He is no stranger to chemical pesticides or poisons used to make plants look good for sale. And he knows firsthand how harmful they can be to human health.
He learned long ago to question if plants might flourish without harsh interventions, as they do in the natural world. His approach, while now embraced by many, was considered radical back in the day.
Cannard’s harvest speaks for itself. For about 30 years, the visionary veteran farmer has served as the chief produce supplier to that temple of the farm-to-table movement, Chez Panisse in Berkeley.
Founder Alice Waters handpicked him, with some guidance from her dad, in what has become one of the most enduring farmer-restaurateur relationships.
Every week, seasonal bounty from Green String Farm such as pristine leafy lettuce, green garlic, squash blossoms, baby artichokes and wild nettles can be found on the acclaimed restaurant’s menu.
The 63-year-old Sonoma County farmer is a pioneer in sustainable farming circles. Cannard has earned his guru grower status by disregarding conventional wisdom when it comes to crop cultivation.
Over the years, the unorthodox agrarian elder statesman has come to favor amending the soil with crushed volcanic rock and oyster shell mineral supplements.
He also is an advocate for what he calls “compost teas,” or naturally brewed, water-based formulas that provide nutrients and help foster a self-nourishing ecosystem that requires little human intervention.
His compost teas are made from ingredients like molasses, fish emulsion, rock dust, microbes and food scraps.
He’s fond of working on land that has been “abused, destroyed or allowed to die.” He delights in bringing damaged soil back from the brink.
Cannard cares about his crops. He only needs to look at a plant, he says, to determine how it’s feeling through its color, posture, anchorage and size.
“Plants are naked. They tell us everything about their health if we pay attention,” he says. Green String Farm, about 60 acres of cultivated land on a 150-acre property, is a produce sanctuary where a wide range of fruits and vegetables flourish under his watchful eye. “I don’t like telling the plants what to do. It’s better to give them a life of choice.”