by Bruce Boyers
America has a health crisis. We’re concerned about cancer, heart disease and osteoporosis; there is an epidemic of obesity and diabetes; and it seems that despite the endless parade of TV commercials touting the latest wonder drug, the only thing that we can count on is skyrocketing healthcare costs. The causes behind this crisis appear to be mysterious and unknown, apparently only solved by throwing more and more money at it.
Old-school dietitians continue to tell us that if we eat a balanced diet, all will be well—this despite the fact that our food today has lost between 15 and 75 percent of its nutrient value, largely due to industrial farming practices.
If you buy into the concept that, physically at least, you are what you eat, then you have to go back to the farm and the soil as the point where good or bad health originates.
There are a few farmers and agriculturists who have thrown away the “standard” texts and procedures of farming. They are raising crops that are free of disease, pests and chemicals and that have nutritional values far beyond the norm. And yet, they insist, this is what the norm should be.
One of these farmers, a leader in what is becoming known as the “Real Food” movement, is northern California grower Bob Cannard, who has been evolving and refining his unorthodox methods for nearly 30 years. The produce from his fields is so bursting with taste and nutrition that, a number of years ago, he was handpicked by world-famous chef Alice Waters to supply fruits and vegetables to her Chez Panisse restaurant, renowned for its completely organic cuisine. I and others here at Calmful Living had heard a great deal about Bob and his crops, and had also heard that his growing methods hark back to nature in ways rarely seen.
Recently we decided to go check it out for ourselves. We had no idea what kind of adventure we were really in for.
Before setting off for Bob’s Greenstring Farm, we decided to sample a few of the results beforehand. Achieving the near impossible and managing to swing a lunch reservation, we stopped off at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California, and ordered six dishes from the menu that we knew would contain some of Bob’s vegetables.
There is really no way to describe the experience that crossed our palates. Items like dandelion greens that would normally be bitter were full of a rich flavor that bordered on sweetness. The cauliflower, eggplant, tomatoes and other ingredients made it seem as if we’d never really tasted these foods before but had only been given a small hint of what was truly possible.
By the time we had finished our meal and had contacted Bob to let him know we were on our way, we were more than ready— armed with cameras and tape recorder—to discover some of the secrets behind this unparalleled flavor experience.
The Divergence from “Tradition”
Having driven north of the San Francisco Bay Area for about an hour, we found ourselves in the rolling green hills bordering California’s famed wine country and turned into the long dirt drive that led us to Greenstring Farm. Parking next to others who had come to purchase produce from the farm’s open-air market, we were immediately overwhelmed by a profusion of scents. Even from some 100 feet away, the health of these fruits and vegetables was readily apparent.
We were then greeted by Bob Cannard himself, a tall, gray-haired man, covered from head to foot in the dust of his trade, with a piercing, intelligent gaze.
To begin, we were treated to Bob’s philosophy of the land, which runs almost entirely counter to that of modern farming practices. “I have developed a concept of using the plants that I grow as an indicator of their completeness and their physical health: their color, their posture, their texture, their symmetry, their anchorage of the soil,” he said. “The plant is naked and we’re the ones with the sensory capacities and observation of every detail of the plant, right down through the taste.”
To demonstrate, he walked us out to a field. He got down on his knees and attempted to uproot an extremely robust looking red pepper plant. Despite application of all his strength, he was unable to do so and had to try several plants before he found one that would come loose. He finally freed it and held it up for us to see. The roots were obviously very alive, almost seeming to actively reach back for the soil from whence they came.
“This is what you want,” he told us. “You want a good, strong, highly diversified root system that has lots of branches to it, holding on to the soil. This is a fibrous, ‘I’m happy where I am,’ diversified root. There’s even a worm here—a youngster—an indication of healthy, aerobic soil. If a plant is malnourished, there will be a small number of long, narrow roots looking for stuff, instead of what you see here.
“If you grow a plant to physical completeness, then it doesn’t have any internalized hunger,” Bob continued. “Freed from internalized hunger, the plant is able to form and function all of its systems to completeness, including its immune system. It builds all of its regular molecular sugars to completeness and runs its body effectively. And beyond that, it gets to manifest its flavor, its refinement of taste and its release of energy in your system.”
Bob rose and hefted a large bucket he had brought along. He made his way down a row of Italian dandelions—the very same sort we had sampled earlier at Chez Panisse. He then turned toward us and began throwing dust from the bucket across the crop as he made his way back up the row.
“This is rock dust,” he explained. “It has about 70 common elements and holds thousands of different mineral compounds. It’s those compounds that biological systems use as the catalyst to control all activities of life. We’ll use about 100 pounds per acre per year of the crushed rock directly applied to the crop, like I just did.”
A foundation for Bob’s success with crops is his utilization of these minerals, and also minerals from seawater. “In natural process gardening, you use study of nature,” he said, “and you see that up in the high mountains the rocks start big and they tumble against one another and pulverize each other, along with all of the softer elements, and most everything goes into the solution of the floodwater. It carries what I call the ‘mineral tea’ from the mountain to the flood plain and brings a new mineral recharge every time there is an incidence of flooding.
When we plow up the soil and use commercial fertilizer and remove all of the organic food for people and do nothing for the soil, the soil biology begins to collapse. As the biology collapses, the soil loses its surface area and begins to turn into a hard, unworkable reduced level of clay or aggregate of some sort, depending upon where it lies.” Where modern farming applies chemical fertilizers and nutrients to try and alleviate this problem, Bob simply returns the soil to its original native state. The difference is astounding: while conventional crops are plagued by pests and disease, which then have to be treated with yet more chemicals, Bob’s crops are both pest and chemical free.
“Pests” as Diagnosis
Part of the reason Bob has no problem with insects is that he doesn’t oppose them; he sees their presence in a diagnostic light.
“I don’t look at bugs as pests at all,” he said. “I don’t do like everyone else and take a stance of adversity with nature. That’s our historical training—to have adversity with nature. Instead, I look at bugs as what they are: indicators of plant health.”
Bob explained that plants have innate immune systems. Just as with humans, if a pest is attacking and destroying the plant, there is some deficiency that is allowing this to occur. Remedy that deficiency and the pests vanish.
“We teach our agricultural students to deal with nature as though it’s hateful, like it’s a war out there—you’ve got to kill the bugs!” Bob said. “No. Bugs and plants are intimate and you need both of them. Then we talk about weeds as if they’re the enemy. They aren’t the enemy either.”
How true this is. Millions of dollars are spent yearly by herbicide companies researching the most efficient ways to kill weeds without poisoning crops. Bob paused to give us an example of his own methods in this regard. “See between these rows of eggplants? We have a fine eggplant crop, which is still the dominant crop, still blooming and still setting fruits; and if you look directly between the rows of eggplants, you will see a winter cover crop starting to happen. This is time-space sharing. Soon we’ll have a frost and the eggplants will die, and all the sunlight and space will come to the winter soil-support crop, and so nature will get its lunch.”
It was fascinating to think that a traditional farmer, seeing the “weeds” growing between Bob’s crops, would be wondering why Bob hadn’t used a herbicide to eliminate them. And there we were, seeing these plants being used to assist the soil and the growth of the primary crop—which, incidentally, was thriving.
Going a little farther on, Bob showed us another example. “These are cauliflowers, and most of them have been harvested. At the same time, the soil isn’t bare; it’s filled with soil-support crops. In this case it’s mostly purslane, which is a very good companionship weed.” This means that plant matter goes back into the soil, which actually requires it.
Bob turned and pointed out an entire field that had been planted with a soilimprovement crop instead of a harvestable crop for humans. “When you grow a soil-improvement crop to full maturity and allow it to die of its own volition, you get several benefits,” he explained. “The first physical benefit is you have durable organic matter, and you actually build soil with that. You get a steady-state food reservoir happening in the soil that isn’t used up by the soil biology. Some of this food supply carries on to the next year, and some of it carries on to following years; so it actually builds soil as time goes on. Just like in nature: you find the oak tree leaf that’s falling off now, and last year’s leaf, and the year before’s leaf. In temperateforest- like conditions, you’ll have about 15 years’ worth of accumulated organic matter that provides this steady state of nutrient reserve and protects the soil from all the vagaries of our environment.”
The Whole Truth
Near the end of our visit, which included a tour around the farm in Bob’s pickup, we were treated to tomatoes we plucked ourselves right from one of his fields. The taste literally exploded in our mouths.
“You can eat a junky tomato and it doesn’t do anything for you,” Bob said. “You can stop right now, go to some deli or another ‘good’ place, and you can get a tomato sandwich, let’s say, and you can eat it. The tomato was picked green; it wasn’t grown for completeness in the first place. Or, you can go get a well-grown tomato: you can bite into it, make a sandwich out of it, whatever you’re going to do—you can taste it; you can feel its energy immediately flowing into your bloodstream.”
As for myself, I could feel that energy entering my system.
Bob concluded our visit with a statement of the direction farming needs to take if we’re ever to improve nutritional conditions on Earth. “We need to change the paradigm, and instead of agricultural students being taught adversity with nature, dominance over nature, we need a first-semester course in recognition of plant health characteristics. There’s not a single textbook out there that talks about plant health characteristics in a broad-spectrum fashion. It should be a first-semester required course.
“If you want to get something that has true taste, then it has to arise, ideally, from physical completeness of the plant, and that plant has its own full-spectrum nutritional mineral-generated balance. And then you’re going to feed that to your child, and the child’s going to get it. If we could start growing plants as I attempt to grow them, we could feed our children this flavor- and nutrient-rich food that’s grown with intelligence. We just need to use our senses to observe the posture and the color and the texture and the anchorage and all these other kinds of things with plants.
“We have cultures that have highs and lows because of food supplies alone. We breed up a lot of people, then we exhaust the nutritional foundation of the regions that those people grew up in. They then denude and exhaust the food-productive capacity, the forest capacity, the fuel capacity, the fabric capacity, of the soil.
“We’ve been taking trillions of dollars and using it to try to manage the people of Iraq. We could have taken these same trillions of dollars and we could be well on our way to turning the Sahara Desert into a meadow. We’d have millions and millions of people in the African continent—people who suffer from the lack of opportunity of human expression, which starts with food on the table and the opportunity to do something for compensation—to put food on the table for the next generation that a parent is responsible for. They would have employment opportunity and they would have constructive activity. That’s a choice in life, and we have a life of choice.”