Mr. Natural, Carrot Shaman Bob Cannard
Carrot Shaman Bob Cannard grows the most celebrated designer vegetables in the Golden State.
By Christina Waters
With its unruly hedgerows of peach trees and musical creek meandering down the mountain, Cannard Farms in Sonoma, California is by any standard a rustic Eden. It was an exuberant endorsement by Greg Steltenpohl, founder of Odwalla juices, that brought me here: “Bob’s carrots are amazing–he’s a carrot shaman!” Steltenpohl had put his money where his mouth was, retaining Bob Cannard to develop Odwalla’s new 65-acre carrot patch, whence flowed the very roots of the company’s ubiquitous carrot juice.
After putting two and two together and realizing that this was the same Bob Cannard who grew some of the most famous designer vegetables in California–those adorning the menu of Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse and Wolfgang Puck’s Postrio–I had to see for myself.
House wide open, encircled by barns, outbuildings, odd bits of weathered tools, a pickup truck and a small, bouncing puppy, Cannard appears on the rough-hewn front porch like a Wild West apparition. Dressed in mountain man standard issues–flannel shirt, blue jeans, muddied work boots and knit cap–he ushers me in and puts on the kettle, leaving me to examine the display of beautifully colored rocks lined up in four neat rows on the kitchen counter.
“Most people think that rocks are dead,” he says, without turning from the sink. “They’re alive.”
Chunks of amber honeycomb lay oozing in a wooden bowl and outside the window the fields exploded with early spring mustard. We sat down-so help me-at a log table. He is Jeff Bridges by way of Elmer Gantry. Tanned and weathered, Cannard’s face is illuminated by sky-blue eyes, his long hair shot through with silver, his body lanky and lean. Shaman or not, he is one heavy dude and the air in his kitchen was soon thick with charisma.
Cannard likes to pontificate about the stupidity and greed of the conventional high-yield farming. He’d also like to wander off in the direction of planetary doom and the destruction of the earth’s fecundity. The hippie in him is obliged to inform me that he keeps his phone in the barn. And that he wouldn’t even have one if his kids hadn’t insisted. So booming are his pronouncements, so maverick his colorful homilies, that I begin to think he’s strictly from Central Casting. But later, when we walk the land, smell the soil, sample the results, I realize that he’s the real thing.
Maybe somewhere in his mid-40s, Cannard has roamed, worked, loved and improved these 172 acres (30 of which he cultivates) for the past 20 years, during which he also taught classes in garden crop production at Santa Rosa Junior College.
In 1960, the Pennsylvania native arrived in the Santa Rosa area, where his family ran a nursery raising ornamental plants. “That was growing as an industry,” he grumps. But at least he was around plants–always loved being around plants. “I went to school at Fresno State and I thought I wanted to study horticulture. But what I was really interested in was plants.” He beams paternally. “The ease with which they grew in the wild, their fullness and softness.”
Loving that essential plantness of plants, Cannard was disappointed to find “that the educational system was only training you for a job in some industry.” Of his formal training, he is willing to recall only that he had “a lot of inquiry, and they suppressed inquiry.” So after a brief stay, Cannard ditched academia and in 1972 started Sonoma Mission Gardens.
“I’d been around plants all my life. It didn’t make much sense for me to take those basic courses,” he observes, careful to sound modest. “I got kicked out because I was too much of a shit disturber,” he growls happily. Besides, “plants weren’t getting what they wanted from those additives, all those systemic fungicides the petrochemical people used.”
So Cannard has spent the past 20 years finding out what plants want and helping them get it.
Dowsing the Right Fantastic
Like the reincarnation of Rudolph Steiner–founder of the biodynamic farming movement currently enjoying recycled vogue–the shit-disturbing grower describes plant cultivation in terms more suited to psychology than chemistry. Dashing up from the table, Cannard bounds out the front door, grabs two handfuls of Italian parsley from different sections of a nearby plot and throws them down on the table when he reappears.
One, I’m invited to realize, is weaker, less vigorous in color and flavor. “It was too easy to pull out, the roots weren’t very deep,” he instructs. The other, we both agree, has more “integrity”. It’s bigger, bolder, hard to uproot. What that means to Cannard is that the more luxuriant parsley was well suited to its growing area. “It was happy where it was; it had bonded with that spot.”
A firm believer in finding out what makes plants happy, Cannard works by patient observation and keeping an open mind. He also works a bit like P.T. Barnum, treating me to an impromptu performance of another of his plant surveillance methods: vegetable dowsing.
From out of nowhere he produces and old rusty chain. “I dowse with an old chain,” he says, flashing a wicked grin, “because I’m just a simple farmer.” Right on cue, the dowsing chain makes smooth, pliant circles over the “good” parsley. It stutters in uncertain, short, back-and-forth motions over the weaker herb. It’s possible that I’m being played for a media fool. It’s also possible that Cannard himself is not firmly rooted on this planet. Either way, the good parsley tastes like the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.
“I’m inclined to grow food of its own volition,” he says, being cryptic on purpose. “It’s very much a spiritual venture. I just allow it to be itself.” Back at his father’s nursery, the plants “were just these little numbers. I’d look at all those thousands of plastic pots and I’d just see money. They weren’t individuals.”
Twenty year of natural farming–in which Cannard is a collaborator with, not master over, the land, seasons and crops–have taught him otherwise. “Plants aren’t deceptive. They don’t run away, they don’t adorn themselves with trickery,” he says evangelically. “They’re naked and open. They’re passive, generous, willing. … So we think plants are stupid.”
Clearly Cannard does not. “The arrogance of one species deciding that it can administer to another,” he fumes, and pours another glass of green tea.
Like many growers who believe that the ideal farm should be conceived as a self-sustaining organism, Cannard feels he improves his farming by getting to know the history and cycles of his crops. “You can see the plant’s past by looking at the leaves, seeing the struggles and tribulations, the lean years, the years of flood, in the oldest leaves, or in the growth patterns, the signs of stress within the bark of the tree,” he says. “You can see whether it’s suffered or whether it’s gone through stuff. We can get an understanding of what it was, all the way to where it is now. Once you get grounded in its history, you can figure out what they need. You can create a stress-free environment and you get strong plants.” Like the parsley on the table in front of us. “You want to grow food that will connect us in that way with nature.”
Jumping up, he herds me out the door. “That’s enough writing. Let’s walk.”
Between a Rock and a Sweet Place
The tour starts with a quick look at a greenhouse and drying shed, where huge mounds of wheatgrass destined for Chinese medical healers are yielding up their moisture. Then we stick our hands in silvery hills of soft, powdered igneous Napa Valley rock, whose virtues as a soil enhancer Cannard tirelessly extols. He enjoys recalling a visit from “some of the University of California, Davis, guys who laughed all the way back to Davis about my powdered rock.” Cannard claims his critics no longer laugh but are making tectonic shifts over to the powdered rock bandwagon.
The licorice scent of fennel emanates from a steaming row of compost hills. These very hills are most famously known as the ultimate exercise in designer recycling, since they are fed twice a week by the kitchen scraps of Chez Panisse restaurant. These very hills, in turn, are fed back into the fresh produce Cannard is commissioned to grow for the restaurant.
“The people from Chez just brought stuff in – they must have been cooking with fennel last night,” he says. In the raised beds we straddle rest perfect miniature bouquets of lettuces, mache, kale, bok choy, mustard, broccoli and raddichio, all impossibly beautiful, all fed by compost.
Cannard’s larger growing fields, not the photo opportunity in March that they will be in June, appear to be inundated by high weeds. In fact, the tiny bundles of red chard are all but invisible under their canopy of wild radish free-associating with calendula.
This is one of his master strokes. “I grow one crop for humans, and one crop for the land,” he explains. The “weeds” are a blend of native volunteers and last year’s crop allowed to bolt. Both cover crops will be mowed and hand turned to replenish nutrients, but only when they’re mature. “Plowing immature crops for green manure kills the plant before it’s ready, sort of like shooting a teenager.” Cannard loves speaking in this sort of provocative soundbite. When he says things like “Phylloxera is a totally insignificant bug, easily cured,” you know he’s trying to shock.
“Plants secrete sugars and they stimulate bacteria colonies and are sucked up by the plant,” says Cannard, the teacher. “When you grow crops, you’re really cultivating bacteria.” Cannard loves the fact that his favorite cover crop of weeds is both free and native. Sure, it might slow down the pace of the growth or affect yield.
He makes no bones about his farm not growing big bucks, the way the Evil Petrochemical Empire does. “Their way of improving soil with imported commercial fertilizers or composts costs many times more than mine, with weeds and powdered rock,” he points out. “My way is much cheaper and doesn’t need rigs, applicators, chemicals.” Bombast softens when he admits that his style involves “a different pace. It’s a little slower. And it’s sure as hell more labor-intensive.”
Cannard’s hand-cultivated harvests are invariably smaller, as well. “With commercial additives you can harvest 50 tons to the acre,” he says “but those vegetables have been sprayed, weakened. I can only get 12 tons to the acre. I can’t compete on the quantitative level.”
Picking leaves from time to time, stretching, pulling, feeling for strength, he admits, “There’s hardly any money in agriculture.” At least not the way he does it.
“I used to do farmers’ markets,” he says as we ford a stream and swing past barrels of wine vinegar being made in the shade of towering live oaks. “They worked well for me; it was cash money. But I was approached by Alice’s dad to grow for the restaurant. They interviewed 17 farmers [actually it was 10] and picked me.” Grin. “Now they come twice a week, three times in the summer, and they bring compost. I pick what they’ve ordered and box it. They drive it back to the restaurant.”
Now he’s given up farmers’ market and stopped teaching, too. He grows vegetables for Chez Panisse and Postrio, carrots for Odwalla on acreage seven miles from this farm, and some pinot noir grapes in vineyards nearby. He is also starting an ambitious olive orchard. Consulting about weeds and soil to other farmers and vineyards brings in most of the $100,000 he’ll make to support himself and two workers in a good year.
“Color can tell me a lot, too,” he says, sitting me down among the huge fava-bean blossoms and tiny heads of teal-green lacinato kale. Lady bugs cling to chartreuse tangles of frisee. The oak leaf lettuce shimmers. “A lot of this is wild,” he says. “It’s reseeded stuff from the last crop, and it’s pickable for free. This land has tremendous depth. Even the things that didn’t work helped teach me something for next time.”
For a man with an ego as large as his land, Cannard is remarkably candid about his trial-and-error experiments. “Not everything works,” he smiles pointing to the frost-damaged corpses of infant purple-top turnips. “And it’s constant work.” We smell the fragrance of soil that has been so personally tended. Even the gone-to-seed heads of arugula are pungent without a trace of bitterness.
On our way towards a sunny slope where bee houses of Cannard’s own hexagonal design hum with activity, he points excitedly, “There’s where we picked the lettuce and got a second cover crop for mulching.” You sense that after all these years, he’s still discovering what the land can do when it wants to. Whatever and however Cannard does what he does, it works. This land is so alive it practically vibrates.
Bob Cannard does not vacation in Tuscany. “I’m always here. What I love to do is take care of it all,” he says. “That mountain up there, and the creeks.” He wants to restore the balance and health lost to logging and erosion, “We’re running at 40 percent life capacity in this land since the white man came.”
The mountain is especially important, he says. “Small handfuls of the tea of the mountain are what really grow everything here. All the bacteria, the minerals are in solution and flood onto the land.” Cannard is a firm believer in recycling nature’s own nutrient power, so in addition to the compost, he adds vitality to his crops by turning his water supply into a liquid fertilizer. He stocks his water tank with bits of nettle, pine boughs, “seaweed if I go to the coast,” anything that will fortify the broth’s potency.
In his spare time, he thins the trees up on the mountain, ministering to the forests and the creeks. “My goal,” he says, “is to get the creeks higher, to catch the load of the creek water and spread it out on the land, not let it just run off down the hill.” So he plugs creeks with rocks and branches and is proud of the renewal of the willow and red alder populations filling in the bank.
For those interested in the healing balance of the planet, the bottom line about what Cannard does is culinary quality. “The chefs don’t really care so much about flavor,” he scoffs with bravado. “The chefs want it to be easy. They want to be able to take it out of the box and plop it down on the counter and cook with it. But Alice cares about the flavor.” Flavor that’s alive.
“It’s not me, it’s the plants,” he says.
There is no single part to this labor. On his land, Cannard has connected the dots among the crops, native plants, trees, rocks, creeks, birds, bees, and wild boars. It is all necessary to what he does: “I grow food.”
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October 20, 2022 (5:17 pm)
Was he the guy that leaves his carrots in for two frosts?