Meet Bob Cannard, the visionary behind Petaluma's Green String Farm

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.

Unorthodox Agrarian

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.”

He doesn't stop there. As with humans, Cannard says, most physical disorders or plant diseases are associated with nutritional deficiencies, and when plants don't feel well, he maintains, they have a bad attitude and don't look, smell or taste good.

He believes gentle support helps plants become the best versions of themselves.

If his holistic approach sounds a bit woo woo for some people's tastes, Cannard the contrarian couldn't care less. Ditto the hungry folks who flock to his farm store on a routine basis.

The Green String Store sells vibrant and fragrant herbs, glossy rainbow-colored chard with strong stems and sweetly scented, juicy stone fruit. The tin-roofed marketplace is packed with wooden crates filled with just-picked produce, along with pantry products such as tomato sauce, honey, olive oil, walnuts, almonds, pickled beets and preserved peppers.

Beyond Organic

Cannard uses the phrase “natural process agriculture” to describe his farming philosophy.

He snorts at the label “organic,” deeming it “costly government paperwork stuff.” The way he farms is beyond organic in terms of environmental stewardship, he says.

As the organic label has grown in popularity, it has been stripped of any real meaning, adds Cannard, who manages five other substantial garden properties in the area. He has more to say on the matter.

As originally imagined, “organic” was supposed to signify local food grown with respect for the environment, using such practices as compost, cover cropping and crop rotation. These days, organic certification is financially out of reach for many small farmers.

Meanwhile, he maintains that big agricultural companies are modifying their conventional practices to garner the organic label and then shipping their produce all over the globe. The spirit of organic, says this former horticulture instructor, has been lost along the way.

He still teaches. Indeed, educating a new generation of farmers is second nature and fundamental to this lifelong man of the land.

And while serious on the subject of sustainable agriculture, he's not immune to imparting his particular brand of knowledge with a mischievous smile.

Every weekday afternoon on the farm, he gives lectures to resident interns as part of the Green String Institute he co-founded in 2000 with local vineyard owner and winemaker Fred Cline.

Some lectures are on practical matters, such as irrigation issues and seed selection; others tend toward the more mystical.

Sharing what he has learned about the inherent wisdom of the wild world and understanding its role in running a healthy farm is textbook Cannard. He leaves students hungry for more.

His mantra is, nurture the soil, a farm's greatest asset. It has been for decades. Simply put, he farms as if tomorrow matters.


Excerpted from “Farmsteads of the California Coast,” by Sarah Henry (Yellow Pear Press, $24.95).

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