Bob Cannard: Visionary Farmer and Educator—and His Green String Farm

By Kirsten Jones Neff / Photography By Kirsten Jones Neff | June 01, 2013
Bob Cannard

Over the past few decades, the now internationally renowned Bay Area food movement has benefitted from an exquisite storm of visionary chefs, eager and educated consumers and impassioned writers who extol the virtues of farm-to-table dining. But the single most important element in this robust gustatory renaissance, the one thing that has been and will always be essential for each and every successful culinary venture, is the flavor of the ingredients. The unparalleled quality of the produce delivered by our Northern California farmers has set the bar for the rest of the foodie world.

For over three decades, one North Bay farmer has been at the forefront of the local farming movement that makes our enlightened meals what they are. Thirty-some years ago, Alice Waters and her businessman father were in search of a local farmer whose crops would be worthy of the transcendent dishes of Alice’s upstart restaurant. After interviewing a dozen they chose Bob Cannard, a very young and equally opinionated Sonoma County organic farmer, to be the crowned prince producer for Chez Panisse.

This decision established a long-term symbiotic relationship that stands as the model for farm-to-table-and-back-to-farm systems—including recycling restaurant food waste for compost. It also meant that Cannard would grow the most coveted produce for one of the most highly esteemed restaurants in the country. It was not long before several other venerable Bay Area institutions—including Postrio and Odwalla—recognized the magic happening in Cannard’s fields and followed suit, hiring him to grow the food that would provide the flavors so essential to their endeavors.  A Google search for Bob Cannard’s name pulls up several mentions of “shaman” and “guru.” All who meet Cannard and/or experience the results of his sometime eccentric teachings and unconventional practices feel that something mystical is at play. His methods cannot be easily labeled—Permaculture, Biodynamic, etc.—and in general he refuses to acknowledge agreed-upon rules.

There is a larger-than-life quality in the way Cannard approaches farming, and his results are mysteriously exceptional, but up close what you see is a hardworking scientist and laborer with an eternal “beginner’s mind,” to use a Buddhist term. He points to nature as his guru, and it seems his singular quest is to continue to learn more from the great master.

As a teen growing up in Sonoma County, Cannard helped run his family’s nursery in Kenwood. He had a keen sense for the business of selling plants, and became familiar with the practice of using the poisons du jour to make sure things looked good in preparation for sale. “Major poisons!” he says, shaking his head in disbelief. “All the popular chemicals, the DDT, the mustard gases. I even became known as the kid who would crawl under houses with gallons of chlordane for pest control.”

While he ran the nursery and mastered the use of modern chemistry in his working hours, he spent his free time exploring the hills east of the Valley. “I would escape to the mountains surrounding Kenwood and I would observe. I began to ask myself a big question: How come we had to do so much to make things beautiful? In nature, everything worked so well together without all the “inputs.” I began to see that in nature it was about good relationships.”

One of Cannard’s seminal memories from that time period is lying under oak trees in the woods. At the time the community was aggressively spraying oaks with malathion to guard against the spread of tent caterpillars. As Cannard watched the caterpillars on the oaks in the hills, he observed that they were gnawing away on the lower shady branches, full of dead wood. “They were just cleaning up the tree,” he says. With a head full of questions, and a good dose of gut instinct, Cannard began to develop his own philosophies about growing.

In the coming years, young Cannard entered and dropped out of a university program that he says he felt was designed to make him “an operator for corporate agriculture.” He then established a retail nursery (Sonoma Mission Gardens), taught horticulture at Santa Rosa Junior College, helped to launch Northern California farmers’ markets and rehabilitated the soil on a beaten up piece of hillside full of star thistle and foxtail that had previously been a pedigree turkey farm. That property on the eastern side of Sonoma Mountain would become Cannard Farms, 30 acres of cultivated farmland and the primary source of the heralded vegetables and herbs used in the Chez Panisse kitchen.

In the decades that followed, Cannard’s transformation of other abused properties in Sonoma County into wildly productive Edens made him famous in the alternative agriculture world. He is also known for his disciplined use of unorthodox techniques, such as dowsing and aura observation. Listening to him describe the lessons he teaches his students it sounds like the perfect blend of a technical Rodale manual and a Gaia guide to auras and chakras. As he explains his lifelong relationship to plants, it is clear the essence of his practice is not so much a precise ratio of practical to philosophical, but instead an ethos based on care and fluidity in the face of nature.

“It is very important to shake up the mind if you are going to become a gardener. I don’t always know what will work and what won’t work. The most important thing is observation. The plants are naked. They will tell us everything about themselves, about their health characteristics. It is about perception.”

When asked for more details about the specific content of his classes, Cannard says, “Oh, let’s see,” and lists two dozen subjects, a “mix of practical and fuzzy,” off the top of his head: chainsaw maintenance and safety, irrigation repair, seed selection, broadcast seeding, lunar cycle planting, garden layout, cost analysis, harvesting, gun training, small engine repair, dowsing, eyesight training (blinking and crossblinking), lab processes like crystallization, aura observation, pollarding willow ....”

The list goes on and on because Cannard taught at Santa Rosa Junior College for 23 years and now works with interns almost every weekday, giving 140 different lectures to national and international farming students who attend the Green String Institute at Green String Farm in Petaluma each season. The Green String Institute was established in 2000 by Cannard and like-minded partner Fred Cline of Jacuzzi Vineyards and Cline Cellars, in response to what they perceived to be a failure of the government’s organic certification process.
“Organic is too costly and it means nothing,” says Cannard, waving his hand dismissively to explain why he has eschewed the label. “It’s all just government stuff.”

Cannard and Cline take issue with conventional farms that adopt methods to fit organic certification, but ship their produce around the world and do nothing to improve the land or respect the integrity of the environment. Instead Cannard uses the term “natural process agriculture,” which connotes sustainable farming practices that produce food free of chemicals and grown with respect for the environment and humanity.
The Green String website describes a Green String farmer as “...closely attuned to the needs of his or her plants and the land on which they are growing. Ultimately the goal is to create a self-nourishing system where less human intervention yields better quality crops, maintaining an important balance between crops grown for human consumption and crops grown for soil improvement.” 

In 2003 Cannard and Cline purchased the land that would become the physical embodiment of Green String Institute’s farming ideology, a 160-acre farm property beyond the golf course and power plant on Old Adobe Road east of Petaluma they named Green String Farm. Cannard describes the land as he found it: “It was literally General Vallejo’s front yard. It was abused. Dead. Completely destroyed.” Just up his alley.

He dived in with his patented patient and naturally available approach—cover crops, re-mineralization and green manure amendments—to bring nutrients and balance back to the soil over the course of three years. The presence of weeds, bugs, gophers and other “grazers” integrated into high-yield fields is one of the distinguishing aspects of a signature Cannard farm. “We grow by the motto ‘50% for humans, 50% for nature,’” says Misja Nuyttens, Green String Farm internship coordinator.

Today Green String Farm includes 50–60 cultivated acres supporting an agricultural bounty thanks to natural cover crops, compost, compost tea, and crushed volcanic rock and oyster shell mineral supplements and plenty of beneficial insects. A rambling white farmhouse on the farm serves as home to the Institute’s interns, who arrive from across the United States—and, in some cases, across the globe—to work the farm in the morning and learn from Cannard and a handful of guest experts each afternoon.

“We have had interns from Ethiopia and India. From Tennessee, Texas, New Jersey and Florida. We have had Germans and Italians,” says Cannard. The interns have their own garden and wood and metal shop. They rotate around the entire farm, spending time in the fields and barns, as well as a stint working in the Green String Store.

The Green String Store is an artfully constructed tin-roofed market brimming with bins of field fresh seasonal produce, as well as pantry items such as canned tomatoes, 20-year vinegar and a variety of Sonoma’s Vella Cheese Company’s cheeses.

“Our idea was to have our naturally grown and healthy products available to the public at a good price,” says Thomas Graham, store manager, who keeps the wood stove burning on cool mornings and spins an impressive selection of vinyl on the in-store turntable. The store is open to the public every day year round. Despite the artisanal appearance of each cluster of carrots or pyramid of fennel bulbs, the prices are quite affordable—Chez Panisse quality at Safeway prices. With interns working the surrounding fields, chickens clucking in the hen house and quiet jazz from the turntable mixing with the gentle breeze from the foothills, Green String feels like a peaceful getaway. A place, as Cannard would put it, “where everything is working together.”