Northern California farmers turn to ‘regenerative agriculture’ for conserving water, growing healthy crops
Sonoma County organic farmer Bob Cannard has the dirt on what’s killing the Earth and refuses to bury his head in the sand about it.
He’s part of a growing movement of farmers, vineyard tenders and conservationists who care for the soil as much as the crops.
The outspoken crop whisperer of sorts studies the leaves, sprouts and buds of his herbs, vegetables and fruits on his 40-acre Green String Farm in Petaluma like a microbiologist examines specimens.
“We, (as a society, wrongly) think we need pesticides on everything, perpetuating the concept that there are pests. It’s a genetic perversion,” he told the Business Journal in early March.
The conventional agricultural system, as he describes it, rewards herbicide and pesticide use to the detriment of many living species like the monarch butterflies that used to blanket the meadows of milkweed and other pollinator-friendly plants. Now they’re near extinction — at last count, down to under 2,000.
“I grew up in Kenwood. We used to see thousands of butterflies,” Cannard said.
An early adopter of organic farming in 1976, through the years, Cannard has moved to non-traditional ways of cultivating the growth of his crops. He grows in diversity because “people eat diversity.”
Cannard describes keeping a steely eye on his plants and feeding them with raw volcanic rock — calling the growing practice “re-mineralization.” He also uses compost from a variety of substances to nurture their growth.
“I’m giving (the land) a smorgasbord. It knows what it wants,” he quipped.
Cannard has also tapped into using the little hooves of his livestock, moving them around in sections to fertilize and tenderize the soil.
“There’s no reason not to grow the soil, while growing crops,” he said.
To him and other environmental advocates endorsing sustainable, “regenerative” farming, these methods of operation work much better than tilling the topsoil entirely off the land, leaving any hopes of growing a bounty of crops in the dust, he lamented.
“If we don’t change our ways, we’ll go from the rainforest to a Dust Bowl,” he said, referring to the 1934 environmental disaster in the Midwest. “We’re well on our way to ruining the richness of our natural soils.”
Bay Area continues to chip in
The San Francisco Bay Area has long been considered ahead of its time in pursuing sustainable farming before its practices became fashionable.
The Recology recycling center based in San Francisco, with North Bay satellite locations in Santa Rosa, Novato and Petaluma, celebrates a quarter century this year in turning the mass curbside collection of food scraps into programs supporting healthy soils.
Over the life of the program, the employee-owned organization has diverted 2.5 million tons of compostable material from disposal and transforming the scraps into nutrients local farmers may use on their properties.
“Compost switches on the ‘life web’ in the topsoil, which helps grow more food,” Recology spokesman Robert Reed said.
How does it work?
“Good quality compost is a natural sponge that attracts and retains water,” said Reed, who made these vital points in a new Netflix documentary titled “Kiss the Ground.”
Reed explained composting can pull carbon and nitrogen from the atmosphere and transform the damaging compounds into nutrients for the soil and consequently the plants. Some of the benefits show substantial benefits above ground.
Recology supplies about 4,200 tons of compost annually to Michael David Winery, where Vineyard Manager Tony Rose has 200 truckloads applied to the grounds of the vineyards producing a dozen varietals. At the Lodi winery where Zinfandel rules, the soil has become so rich with biodiversity that the mustard weed growing in the 8-foot wide rows has shot up more than 7 feet high between the vines.
“It’s the tallest mustard I’ve ever seen,” Reed said.
Also, rich blankets of crimson clover and snow pea plants have attracted many butterflies and bees pollinating in the vineyards.
“It helps with organic matter and fertilizer and makes the soil happy,” said Rose, who refrains from using any synthetic fertilizer. Rose pays $450 a truckload and $5 per ton to Recology and insists the expense is well worth it.
“Some (farmers) have bought into it. I just know you have to spend money to make money,” he said.
Our climate’s quest for water, fueled by drought
Another advantage to “feeding” the soil in a region plagued with persistent drought involves the tremendous water savings.