Bob Cannard: Natural Process Farmer
June 28, 2016
by Farmer Jay
Bob Cannard has been been farming in Sonoma, California, for 38 years. He is most popularly known for being Alice Waters’ farmer for her critically acclaimed restaurant Chez Panisse. Even though California is the land of milk and honey and has a great food system, this farmer’s path was not an easy-paved road. He had to carve his way and change the rules as he went.
Cannard started off in the landscape and nursery industry in 1969 mainly doing landscape installations. He quickly got tired of this and wanted to start growing food. At this time, he was also teaching a landscape and horticulture class at Santa Rosa Junior College. Wanting to get some land to farm, Bob made a deal with a client who had a large piece of property in Sonoma. Bob did a large landscaping job for the landowner and bartered out an agreement for his first year of use on the land. To this day Bob is still farming on the same land.
Photos by Robert Badillo & Jeramy Pritchett
Bob is what you would call a natural process farmer; his farming method is sustainable and closely follows a nature example. He utilizes composts for fertility, rock dusts for mineral support, and compost teas to increase the biology within his soils. He never uses any chemicals and never even kills bugs. His plants’ health is directly attributed to the quality of the food that he grows and no doubt one of the main reasons Alice Waters chose Bob.
Bob joined the Santa Rosa farmers market in 1978, which at the time only lasted three months out of the year. Bob wondered why the market was not open year round. Farmers in that area did not grow in the winter, but Bob knew that it was possible. So he set his garden up and grew all the way through winter to prove his point. The next year, Bob became the Santa Rosa market manager and got his wish to have the market year round, and since then the market has remained year round.
Photo by Robert Badillo & Jeramy Pritchett
Meanwhile at the college, Bob started to incorporate growing veggies into his horticulture class, and it soon became very popular. Each of Bob’s students got a plot of land to grow veggies on as a part of the class. The program was not funded, so Bob had the kids selling their bounty at the farmers market and 1 percent of the profits had to be given back to buy supplies for the program. The college was not very happy about this because it was not approved and the money was not being accounted for through the school’s accounting system. Bob had about $12,000 saved up from what the kids sold, which he was going to use to buy more supplies and seeds to further expand the program. The school was upset, so he gave the money to the school so they could account for it and disperses it into the program. The school ultimately did not do this and Bob was released from his position shortly after.
In 198, Chez Panisse was not doing very well. In Bob’s words, “It became a free house, and they were losing money.” So Alice called in her father, Pat Waters to help her. They came up with the idea of bringing in a farmer for the restaurant. They wanted a face and personality for people to associate with. Pat brought in fifteen farmers from the area, including Bob. Pat quickly took to Bob and went out to visit his farm many times before making the decision. Three weeks later he got the call that they picked him. He was very happy about this because this would give him the ability to be more creative with what he was growing and allowed him to grow more varieties of produce. I asked Bob what the interview was like and what kinds of questions Pat asked, he told me, “The questions didn’t matter, it was more the character they were looking for.”
With the new position, Bob needed some money to get started for equipment and seeds, so he asked Alice for $2,000 and said he would pay back at $1 off per box delivered. They agreed to this and he got started right away. Bob was to deliver three times per week, and one of those days he had to stay and work with the chefs in the kitchen. He did this for about three years, and now his name is stuck and forever will remain with Chez Panisse. Bob tells me that through the years, he has seen chefs come and go and some were gunning to make changes and get rid of him by trying to save money or using some other wild scheme to make a name for themselves. Bob said Alice has always protected him saying, “on’t mess with Bob, he stays.”
Photo by Robert Badillo & Jeramy Pritchett
Bob and his wife divorced when his two boys were young and Bob got them on the weekends. This was another reason Bob was so happy about working with Chez Panisse. Having his weekends free so he could be with his boys, allowed him time to always plan some fun activity. Bob told me that they enjoyed building boats. They started with toys and graduated on to something they could actually sail on. They built a small sailboat and needed a body of water to try it out on. Bob’s dad (Bob Cannard Sr.) had a friend Fred Cline, who had the perfect property with a lake. Bob Sr. said he would talk to Fred and set it up so that Bob Jr. could take the boys out there. Bob and the boys were excited and ready for the maiden voyage. As they were enjoying the beautiful day on the lake, Fred Cline showed up with his family and quickly went down to dismiss Bob and the boys off the property for trespassing. As it turns out, Bob senior forgot to call Cline and make the arrangements as promised. Once Bob Jr. informed Fred who he was and what had happened, they began talking and have been lifelong friends since, with a great story on how their friendship came to be.
Fred Cline is a wine maker in Sonoma Valley and started Cline Cellars in 1982. Cline is probably best known for his Zinfandels, but all of his varieties are amazing. Bob and Fred started getting together regularly, and at the time Fred was a conventional grape grower using pesticides and herbicides. One day the two farmers were talking and they were noticing how all the natural area surrounding them was lush and green and the vineyard was brown. Bob started to tell Cline about the natural process and the way he grows. Fred was intrigued and wanted to learn more, and he had the desire to learn more about growing food as well. So from this point on Bob started helping Cline convert all of his vineyards to sustainable practices. He stopped using pesticides and herbicides, they started growing food together, and they opened up a farm store on one of Fred’s properties in Petaluma to offer produce to the community. They call Greenstring Farm.
All the pieces were coming together for Bob, except he needed to get back to teaching. Bob is very passionate about teaching the next generation and has a strong desire to make more farmers. Fred and Bob decided to start an internship and teaching program called Greenstring Institute. The program runs for three months and is cyclical with the farm and seasons. Students receive many hours of classroom time mixed with plenty of hands-on experience while attending this internship. Many students come planning to stay for three months, but end up staying longer to further educate themselves and stay connected with the farm. I had the great privilege of attending this program back in summer ’09 and it changed my life forever. Bob’s delivery and teaching style is superb, even the non- farmer would be hung on his every word and message.
Photo by Robert Badillo & Jeramy Pritchett
He has learned to farm over the years by observing nature and following his senses, and this is what he instills in his teachings. He tells us, “It is you and your garden. The secret is to forget what you think you know and return to your senses.” For this article I returned to reenstring for the first time in over four years and I was delighted to see that the program had expanded and the students were just as, if not more, engaged in the program. When I told Bob about this article
and how I was referring him to being a “rebel” he quickly dismissed it and said, “I am not rebel!” I then recited the definition of a rebel, which is a person that rises in opposition. He still was unsatisfied with being called a rebel because he associated a negative connotation with this title and firmly believes that everything we do should be positive. Bob always says, “Positive plus positive will always be positive,” and he preaches this in his teaching. I understand and respect this and we agreed that he is a “Rebel Maker.”
Food Farming horticulture
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About The Author: Jacqueline Romano