Amigo Bob Cantisano has farmed in California since the mid-1970s — an array that includes tree fruits and nuts, berries, vegetables and olives, plus flowers and nursery stock. The 65-year-old farmer is on hiatus from working the land as he fights cancer, but he's still tending his most important crop: ideas.
Part of that generation who went back to the land and stayed, this ninth-generation Californian started the first natural foods distribution company in California, and the state's first organic farm supply, organic farming conference and organic crop consulting agency.
Growing up in the Bay Area, Cantisano — he got the nickname Amigo from a high school girlfriend — did not plan for food to be a career. Rather, his work evolved around his circumstances. Living communally in and around San Francisco in the late 1960s, he tore up backyards to garden and feed himself and his friends.
Food became a lot more to think about when, on the first Earth Day in 1970, Cantisano realized that environmental stewardship could be responsible farming and eating. Soon he moved out to Lake Tahoe, and started a food-buying club with friends that became a cooperative grocery. Stocking that meant buying a truck, and starting a route picking up from farmers, Cantisano recalled recently; that route eventually morphed into United Natural Foods, one of the largest distributors of natural foods in the country.
"The more I explored, I realized there were lots of opportunities," Cantisano said. Gardening turned into farming, and farming sprouted Peaceful Valley Farm Supply, because he and other organic growers needed access to the right materials. So many customers asked how to use the inputs they were buying that, in the '90s, he started the consulting company Organic Ag Advisors, and began formally helping farmers manage their fields and crops.
While Cantisano started the company to serve an obvious clientele, another set of clients has emerged. For more than 20 years, he has worked with conventional growers on transitioning to organic, or just incorporating organic practices into their vineyards, orchards and vegetable farm systems.
Why would a conventional farmer hire an organic advisor? Dig a little deeper — into the ground, if you will — and this odd business arrangement makes sense. All farmers are stewards of the land. Organic growers say they're growing soil first, and crops second; their certification requires evidence of soil protection such as crop rotation plans that cycle fields through different plants and buffer from pests and diseases. Cantisano has been guiding conventional growers for big brand names in nuts, vegetables, fruits and more for decades. Clients in the wine industry show a few reasons why conventional farmers are borrowing from organics.
"People are interested in quality, and in how long the grapevines are going to survive. It can cost between [$40,000 and $70,000] to replant an acre," he said, so the incentive to keep the existing plants healthy is big. Plus he said, "more often than not, the grower sees a better quality grape, and that translates to better quality wine."
The link between food taste and soil health is just beginning to be explored in the food world, but organic farming habits are bleeding into conventional agriculture. Even farming magazines sponsored by petrochemical fertilizer companies have been running stories about crop rotations. Consumer demand for clean food is influencing the purchasing habits of large buyers in the food industry, and Cantisano helps growers produce food according to standards that are getting defined by the emerging market.
As agriculture begins to change, Cantisano sees polarization as a barrier. Small is called beautiful and big farms, both organic and conventional, are vilified. Yet converting large acreages to organic, he said, is key to transforming the food system. "Big farms have the efficiencies we need to feed lots of people," he said.
Cantisano's innovations helped shape natural and organic food production in California and beyond. He hopes he can plant this idea: that the demonization of conventional farmers is detrimental to the consumer desire for better, cleaner food. Cantisano sees commonality in all farmers, and has since he began farming.
"I was the only organic farmer for about 30 square miles," he said, recalling a time in the late '70s. "Everybody around us was conventional, and I wanted to get along with them because they were nice people; I saw them as allies." So Cantisano sought advice on how his neighbors had farmed before the modern, chemical era. They were glad to share the info, he said. "They thought what they'd done was too much hard work without chemicals — they thought that chemicals were a godsend."
When this elder in the organic farming movement gets to address the next generation at sustainable farming conferences, Cantisano now plants this thought: 90% of what all farmers do is the same.
"Talk to us," he urges beginning farmers, telling them to seek the insight of farmers of all stripes. Creating categories of us and them doesn't help anything, Cantisano points out, especially when there are so few farmers left.
"We're an endangered species."
Amy Halloran is the author of "The New Bread Basket."