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Edible Education 101: Sustainable Farming for the Future (Cannard)

(mellow music) – Mark Bittman. I’m here at the University of California for Edible Education. With me is Bob Cannard, one of the real heroes
of California farming. Bob, I was hoping you’d tell me a little history of how
things progressed for you over the last 30, 40
years, whatever it is, and what’s different
between your first farm and where you’re at now. – Well I’m still at my first farm. – [Mark] Well there you go. – I grew up in the powerful,
chemical nursery industry in the late ’50s and through
the ’60s into the ’70s, and by ’76, I quit that business with determination to
understand the foundation of why plants grew so
beautifully in the wild, in the mountains, and
what not with no inputs, and so I dedicated five years of study to I’m cleaning up this
farm where one of them I’m still at, and studying nature. And thought I was kind of a genius. I’d find rocks, and so I’d
take a regular igneous rock, and by scraping it, I could see that the outside of it was deteriorating and the inside of it was hard, and that’s where the minerals come from, from being digested by the organic acids, and we still grow in the same way. Very, very low inputs. If you grow lots of carbon in the soil by growing cover crops to full maturity and you supply this fine,
powdered, crushed rock to supply the full spectrum
of mineral nutrients, you’ll stimulate a big soil biology that digests the minerals and allows it to come into the cropping cycle. – Well, so is that
transition over five years or did you– – Yeah, it took me about five years to do that, Mark, and to get that, and the property I’m on
was a pedigree turkey farm and nothing would grow there. I mean it had 40,000 birds for 40 years and soil was scraped off,
and poisoned to boot. Quaternary ammonia,
formaldehyde, weed killers, and it took me a few years
to overcome those disorders, but being a student of nature, I thought this property was perfect for me in many ways, but especially, it was heavily damaged feedlot soil, and I knew that if I did
something correctly with it, I would be successful,
and if I did something incorrectly with it, then I would fail. – And you built it back up how? – By growing soil improvement plants. We grow 50% of all the
organic biomass for people and 50% for nature in each cropping cycle, and that’s getting that carbon back out of the atmosphere
back into the soil. – You’ve told me this
before and I love it, so I just want to be really clear on this, of your crops, 50% stay
in the ground basically? – Well, a little bit different. You know I’ll plant out all my crops on wider rows than conventional stuff, and between those rows, instead of killing all of the nature support plants, commonly called weeds, whether
they’re indigenous weeds or whether I plant those weeds, so we have a crop for
people, a space for people, and then 50% of the space
between those two rows for nature support crops. And then those nature support crops are allowed to come to full maturity. Like you might grow a crop
of summer squash, zucchinis, and so you’ll have about a one-foot clean, cultivated row with the
zucchinis growing in it, and then four-feet space
for the nature support crop, and then if the nature
support crop gets too big and starts out-competing
with the human support crop, then they aren’t killed, they’re cut back. I go out there with a sythe
or one of the other tools and suppress them. It’s much easier, and gentler,
to suppress than to kill. – How is one foot versus four feet 50/50, or that’s not an exact measure? – No, well that’s with summer squash because they get big, but if it were, let’s say right now in the garden, it would be radicchio let’s
say, one of the chicories, and they’re planted at 16
inches, 12 to 16 inches, and then there’s a row of clover, or a row in the summertime of buckwheat or some other nature support plant planted right between them. – And the nature support plant is tailored to support the plant that you’re growing for people? – They can’t compete with it too much, so it’s time-space sharing. That’s the space of the plant, the shape of the plant,
and the time it needs to be in there, and yes, it’s
somewhat along those lines, and then the human side crop is harvested and the nature support plant is allowed to come to full maturity, make its seeds, and die of its physical maturity, incorporating durable organic material into the soil that has a
longer than one year half life of digestion by the soil biology, so you’ll have a steady state food supply for the soil biology critical. – You’re not worried about volunteers. You want those seeds in there. – You want those seeds. Seeds in the ground are worm food and regenerative food
for funguses, yeasts, molds, bacterias consume those things. They don’t get them all by any means, and it’s very important that those seeds are present when I
first came to that farm, hardly any little songbirds. Now they alight in there beautifully. Seed-eater birds. – I could be wrong about this, but it seems the more
I read about organic, or let’s say sustainable
versus conventional for want of a better term, farming, the more I see the same two questions, and one is is it as productive, is the yield as good,
but then the other one which is, I think, in a
way more interesting, is is the long-term prognosis as good and is the profit as good? So, you know what I’m saying? – I understand perfectly. – [Mark] Okay. – First off, no, I’m perfectly happy with 75% theoretical gross yield of the human side crop,
and at the same time, if I can achieve a 75% theoretical yield for the nature support crop, I have 150% gross yield,
which is what you need. There are inefficiencies in every process and you have to have more than 100% in order to be actually sustainable, and so I’ve taken that
soil over the last 40 years and grown it from feedlot conditions where nothing but the
nastiest of weeds would grow to soils that my staff can plant anything in almost any place on the
garden, without inputs, and they will grow. Like, an example, if you get that lots of carbon in the soil, and you have that civilized soil biology because it’s inoculated
with the indigenous microfloral population of the location, you develop the
free-living, nitrogen-fixing microfloral population. Like most farmers use lots of nitrogen. I use about, on last year, two pounds per acre per year. You get the free-livers and they bring the appropriate amount
of nitrogen into the soil to break down that carbon supply. – You, in recent years, have taken, or maybe it’s not recent years, you’ve always or recently
taken some of the weeds, some of the nature support crops, and harvested them for human consumption. – Oh, weeds have totally
different mineral… They’re wild, and so
they have different… Every plant tastes differently, and so they are accumulating different mineral compounds and
different proportions and making different
organic molecular structure that brings health to us. Like the dandelion is an example, or the wild mustard versus
the cultivated mustard we call broccoli. Intensely flavorful difference. Use all of your common senses, and you’ll recognize and feel the energies of those plants. – That’s really great. I want to talk for a second about the soil itself, ’cause it sounds like, over the last 40 years,
nothing has happened to that soil except it’s gotten better. – That’s correct. – [Mark] So you’re not only taking crops out of there every year, you’re doing that while you’re building the soil. – I’m growing people while I grow soil. One of my strongest
responsibilities as a farmer is to leave the land in better condition and to grow physically complete food to bring that physical completeness into the health of the
people that eat my food so that they don’t need the doctors and they are integrated into themselves and maybe they don’t need
the lawyers nearly as much. – That’s a beautiful thing. And do you use, I don’t know what the right term is, do you use purchased
inputs or is everything– – We use raw crushed rock that, I used to make it all, but
it’s much more efficient for me to get volcanic
rock that’s been crushed by appropriately constructed
contemporary machinery. I use oyster shell to supply calcium. I use gypsum, about 100
pounds per acre per year of all of those elements, and I’ll buy some off-farm seeds for the nature support crop
in order to diversify it. – And tell me a little bit about what you have to buy off-farm, what you’re not producing yourself as far as inputs goes. – Well, seeds, both for
the human support crops and for the nature support crops. Less and less of the nature
support crops over time because I allow them to go to seed and they become part of the farm. Raw crushed rock, igneous rock that’s crushed to a fine powder so that it’s available to the biology of digestion in the soil,
and those are the… Different kinds of rocks. You know I’ll use oyster
shell to supply calcium and I’ll use gypsum about 100 pounds, between the three of them, maybe 150 pounds per acre per year to make sure that the soil is charged with especially the soft elements, and it’s on-farm, but it’s off-farm too. I’ll go to the surrounding lands, the mountain land, the wild lands and harvest and make composts,
harvest just a little bit, but inoculate my starter compost with it that goes through the compost heap brewers and out into the garden to
stimulate the soil biology, and if you have plenty
of carbon in the soil and you have plenty of
good, balanced biology in the soil, a steady state food supply for that soil biology, then you develop the free-living, nitrogen-fixing
microfloral population, and it brings most all the nitrogen out of the atmosphere
in appropriate balance for the amount of carbon that’s present. We’ll use about two
pounds of actual nitrogen per acre per year. Very important, and if that works, nitrogen is a plant drug,
and if you have too much, then you’ll get fat, weak, sick plants, but if you have just appropriate balance, all plants have complete
immunological systems, and if you have that physical completeness that can be generated
through good digestion and good mineral availability to form and function all of the enzymatic systems, then bugs aren’t problem. I don’t call them pests. I call them indicators of plant health. – Perfect. Okay, thanks so much, Bob. – My pleasure. (Mark laughs) – I was talking with Bob Cannard from Green String Farm. (mellow music)

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