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Amigo Bob Cantisano, towering figure in West Coast organic farming, dies at 69

Amigo Bob Cantisano poses amidst plants
Amigo Bob Cantisano did pioneering work in organic farming.
(Amigo Bob Cantisano)

Amigo Bob Cantisano, a ninth-generation Californian, put his life’s work into the state’s very soil — beginning, fittingly enough, on the first Earth Day in 1970.

At an event at San Francisco State he listened to a speaker decry what pesticides introduced after World War II were doing to the environment, farmworkers and food.

His course was set. Cantisano, a Bay Area native, joined a generation of largely urban youth who moved back to the land and began farming as a way to reform the food industry.

“He was the godfather of California organic farming,” said Tom Willey, a Madera farmer and another elder of the organic movement. “He had such knowledge and authority that he was responsible for taking organics beyond small farmers like ourselves. He was determined to remove as much toxins as he could.”

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Cantisano, who battled cancer for several years, died Saturday at his North San Juan farm, Heaven and Earth, which he revered as both. He was 69.

His legacy lives in the state’s rich landscape, from pesticide-free vineyards in Napa to rescued heirloom fruit and nut trees in the Sierra foothills. His was a mission to revolutionize farming — including large-scale agriculture — by cutting the use of toxic chemicals.

Bob Cantisano is an organic farmer with a ponytail that reaches the small of his back.

Alice Waters, the owner of Chez Panisse in Berkeley and a fellow food activist, said the movement Cantisano helped create is key to the future of California’s agriculture.

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“It took someone rare like him to get people’s attention,” she said. “What he inspired led to the silver lining of the better food system that we might be able to create in this state.”

Cantisano started California’s first natural foods distribution company and its first organic farm supply company, as well as one of the state’s first — and for many years only — organic crop consulting agency.

In 1973, he helped found California Certified Organic Farmers, setting organic standards. He was also one of the founders of the Committee for Sustainable Agriculture, which sponsors the EcoFarm Conference. The event, held every January in Pacific Grove, is still one of the most influential events in the world of sustainable agriculture.

Bestselling author Michael Pollan, who writes about the socio-cultural impacts of food, said Cantisano carried in him the sum total of organic practices.

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“Organic agriculture was not developed in a laboratory or at the university or a land grant, but willy-nilly by hundreds of pioneering farmers. He was one of those people,” Pollan said.

“But even more than that, he was the way that the knowledge any individual farmer was developing would spread to other farmers. He was a pollinating honeybee of knowledge.”

Agriculture could go organic worldwide if we slashed food waste and stopped using so much cropland to feed livestock, a new study finds.

Cantisano was born in San Francisco in June 1951. His father was a jazz disc jockey who also announced games for the Golden State Warriors. Family lore had it that his mother, then a homemaker, was related to Karl Marx. He spent summers at his paternal grandmother’s, where he first learned to garden.

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The early organic communal farms he joined were called radical and considered a communist threat to California.

Later, his work bridging the divide between small, organic farms and conventional, commercial agriculture sometimes drew the criticism of small farmers who then had to compete with large enterprises for organic market share. It also created unlikely partnerships.

Sam Earnshaw, whose specialty is increasing biodiversity on farms, recalls accompanying Cantisano to the palatial headquarters of one large Salinas business. Cantisano, an unwavering aficionado of shorts, sandals and rainbow-colored tie-dye who went by the nickname “Amigo” since his teen years, spoke to a boardroom full of no-nonsense farm managers about organic techniques.

“They treated him with the utmost respect. He had encyclopedic knowledge. He listened to their problems. He never went in saying, ‘You’re diabolical.’ He always offered alternatives,” Earnshaw said.

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In 2003, Cantisano and his future wife, Jenifer Bliss, founded the Felix Gillet Institute with partner Adam Nuber. The institute was named after the French nurseryman who first brought the trees and vines planted at stagecoach stops and homesteads throughout the California foothills in the late 1800s. The hope was that cataloguing and propagating those heirloom varieties could help develop food sources more able to survive a warmer, drier planet than single-variety crops.

Near the end of his life, Cantisano expressed frustration that organic farming was still only a small slice of agriculture — even as environmental threats increased.

But he was never consumed by the disappointment. He liked to swim in lakes and rivers and hike in the Sierra and dance.

“Amigo was about adding life, whether it was microbes in the soil or turning up the music,” Earnshaw said.

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“He always said perseverance and diligence are the key to getting things to change. And lately I’ve been thinking he was talking about more than farming.”

He is survived by his father, Martin; his second wife, Jenifer Bliss; sister Nancy Cantisano; four children, Brook Cantisano, Cirra Mason, Amber Stegner and Tierra Kampas; their mother, Kalita Todd; and five grandchildren.

Bliss said that the morning after her husband died, she was awakened by a small earthquake.

“Maybe this sounds strange,” she said. “But it felt like the Earth was giving a send-off to a man who had worked all his life to protect it.”


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