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Bob Cannard, Farming with Nature for True Taste


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 Organic Connections 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.

Chez Panisse

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 soil improvement 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.”

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Thanks Rob, nice and close I will check it out on the weekend. I'm sure it has probably gone up as everything else has.

Thanks so much Lissa, So pleased this article resurfaced as I missed out on seeing it last year. Bob Cannard is a man after my own heart. His philosophies brilliant. I have been using Certified Organic Products, Weed Teas, Go Go Juice, Rock Dust and Fungi for some years but have never grown a complete cover crop as my vegi patch is not big enough to be without all of it for any length of time so I am going to start growing a crop in between my vegies and turn it in when it has finished it's life cycle.

Lissa I thought you do hang around with people like this. Maybe we all should all be talking about what we do etc. in regard to keeping our soil and Earth healthy.

Ah I do hang around the good people of BLF. I would love to go to California and hang around these people for a month to truly absorb their philosophies.

I've never had the space or time to devote a bed entirely to a cover crop either. I need those beds for growing food in. But I do cut up and re-use the old crop in those same beds so in my head it amounts to the same thing.

The real beauty of cover crops - at least in the Biodynamic world - are that they are allowed to break down into what the BD folk term 'colloidal compost' which feeds the plants. They recommend 2 such before a crop. It is time-consuming and space-consuming. I have no doubt that it works given the photos I've seen. BUT and this is where I fall down - remembering to prepare the beds ahead of time and being able to devote the space to cover crops is quite another thing with a suburban yard to grow in. I do use cover crops. It is useful particularly when starting a new bed. My use of them is sketchy at best: put one in, chop it down when it's about to flower. Plant the crop. It is an abbreviated system, better than not doing it but not using cover cropping to its full potential.

The BD growers only add extras (eg lime, minerals) to the cover crop so that the real crop does not get fertilised separately and grows its whole life on the compost within the soil. There are few extras to add in BD. It does take up a lot of space!

Lissa, When I win my millions lotto, maybe you could join me in 1st class.  Bob Cannard mentions that he does not like cutting down cover crops before they have grown their full cycle.   Knowing this I thought I might try the only pea seeds I have on hand, namely Tetragonolobus purpurea and found these notes on this SITE  Do you think these would work as a cover crop  Haven't grown peas before.  Dah! 

Opinions differ, naturally ;-) Use any seeds you've got, the more variety the better. Different root systems, different nutrients. I buy bird seed and Sunflower seeds. It's the simplest and cheapest. Some BD growers use up to 90 species in a year, different ones for different seasons. Might be the best system but I reckon what is easy to get and cheap is best, at least for me. Better to get a cover crop on than to be dickering about the elegance of this mix or that variety.

I have a stack of Lucerne roots available will bring to GV on Saturday. With Lucerne you've got a permanent mulch supply and can grow them beside trees either in bins or in the ground. Ditto Comfrey but Lucerne takes up less space and is better for bins.

As it turned out, Elaine, I was thinking of you last Sunday when I was at the bird feed stall at the Caboolture Mkts...

(You get least in the ether: you know, like Obi-Wan Kenobi. )

I was looking at the  wares on offer  and wondering if there was a species that I could plant out. I never thought of using a generic mix....Maybe I can plant out my layer mash?

Some of the black beans I planted have come on. That's an experiment. I'm just about ready to plant out coriander as a cover crop all over.  Coriander is ole reliable usually long as the weather cools.I buy the seeds from the spice merchants. Same place I get the beans. 

Since I found a wild stand of aloe vera I've planted out heaps of that succulent too.

From reading up on the green manure literature I find the procedure (a) complicated and (b) species limited in our sub tropics . Surely there is a 'hot regions' workaround? 

 A routine.

GH offers a list. Buckwheat, soybean,mungbean,millet,lablab and cowpea.  

I bought some health food shop buckwheat but very little of it took off. 

But I prefer a seed large enough i can easily handle...

I've also been following many of your precepts...

At the moment my stands of  this plant - Canavalia Rosea/ Canavalia Maritima/Jack bean  are coming on.Pictured at right on a beach somewhere... Love this leguminous creeper. I see where it has some use as a cover crop. 

I plant it about to suppress weeds and it occupies half of my nature strip.There I trim/shape it like a hedge. 

This year, I'm growing pigeon peas among the Canavalia on the strip and they are thriving!

Loves my sand. Easy to grow..and well behaved. And when it takes off; it takes off.

The other great advantage is the seed pods  are easy to manage , harvest and plant out.

Canavalia brasiliensis as cover crop.forage (There are many species of Canavalia but they share similar habits):

  • Grown as a cover crop after harvest in south west India:Canavalia maritima.
  • Cover crop list that includes Canavalia maritima
  • '...drought tolerant groundcover of Canavalia sp. or similar, could build up mulch, soil organic matter and nitrogen, but would probably need 3 – 5 years to significantly improve the soil.'(REF)

Plantains with a Canavalia ensiformis cover crop.

Just saying: hadn't thought about it as a veg garden addition... Now that I have this up and down mound thing going all over the place, creepers will suit the layout. I usually deploy nasturtiums as the most land hungry creeper among the veg, but Canavalia should go OK.

Great for mulch, by the way. Easy snip snip. 

I'm currently growing it as a ground cover -- weed suppressor -- in my new edible succulent garden: aloe vera + prickly pear + dragon fruit -- and the succulents don't seem to mind the green doona all around them. And Canavalia will even grow at the base of my Sheoak copse where nothing is supposed to be able to grow.

I'm thinking that with my new snip snip gardening way Canavalia and i will get along famously.

One drawback, I'm thinking: snakes.But since I've not had any snakes outback (touch wood)  maybe I can proceed. And if I keep cutting a pathway  and keep hand watering the Joe Blakes won't come to stay.

Anyone who wants to try Canavalia -- they are on most beaches. The seed pods are easy to find among the greenery. You can buy them too. I distributed some a while back but this time around I'll harvest plenty as a reserve. After sharing last time,  I didn't leave any for myself other than what I had already planted out. But I know the pods are keenly coming on as we speak...they are forming just outside my back door.

As I say: in my experience a friendly creeper...

This was one of my Canavalia's  in February last year:

If you have the seeds Christa may as well give them a go. 

When I think of cover crop I personally want plants that will give something in return, preferably something to eat. Which brings me back around to the fact that I never actually "rest" my beds - they are always producing a food crop which then get cut up and used back in the bed. Why grow something non-productive when you can have a food crop I wonders?

Different philosophy perhaps? The cover crop adds to the soil fertility. That way you don't buy and haul e.g. manures. The strict adherers to Biodynamics almost never have any pest or disease problems, weeds once in a paddock disappear when the fertility increases. It's a balancing act of setting off one set of values against another.

My philosophy is 'do what works for you' and 'the more trial, the less error'.


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