If you want to know a place, get to know and listen to the folks who have been around for a long time, the people who have deep roots in a community, and yes in the soil itself. In Sonoma County there are several prime candidates: Mike Benziger, Phil Coturri and Bob Cannard, all of them men of the soil who collectively grow marijuana, grapes, fruits and vegetables.
Yes, there have been local women imbued with lore and legend. Many of them, including my friends, Anne Teller and Pat Eliot, have passed, though not before they lived full, rich lives and told riveting tales.
Bob Cannard is famous. At least he was when Chez Panisse was up and running. Cannard supplied vegetables, fruits and herbs to Alice Waters legendary Berkeley restaurant. She and her chefs turned curly cress, baby Brussels sprouts, celery root and bok choy into sumptuous dishes that appealed to foodies from near and far.
Alas, Chez Panisse has been shuttered during the pandemic and Cannard has been happy growing vegetables for masked cooks who arrive at Green String—his flagship farm—eager for fresh produce. They leave with baskets filled with their favorite seasonal fruits, vegetables, cheeses and meats from pasture-feed cattle. Green String is a paradise for omnivores.
Long ago, Cannard made a conscious decision not to grow cannabis. If he had chosen to grow it, he would probably be a wealthy man today, though he doesn’t believe in owning land and property. He leases and rents. Nor did he encourage others to grow weed. When young guys enrolled in his classes on agriculture at the Santa Rosa Junior College and wanted information about cultivating “plants,” (wink wink), he advised them to steer clear of weed.
“I told them they would be better off if they grew things to eat like broccoli and zucchini,” Cannard tells me on a sunny afternoon at Green String on the outskirts of Petaluma, once the self-proclaimed chicken and egg capital of the world, where the rolling hills are green right now.
Most of the young men didn’t listen to their venerable teacher. Why should they have? In the hip capitalist culture of California, in which cannabis, not broccoli and zucchini, has been idealized, romanticized, fetishized and vilified, young men parted company from Cannard and chose to worship at the altar of “demon weed.” They went into the hills and the valleys all over the Golden State, adhered the California Dream and grew very potent marijuana that sold for thousands of dollars a pound. Decades later, the price per pound has dropped, but a pound of marijuana still fetches far more than a pound of zucchini.
Cannard isn’t a foe of marijuana. “A puff now and then is fine,” he says. “But what started out as something joyful turned into something else.” He pauses a moment and adds, “I never saw marijuana do anyone any good.”
I might have argued with Cannard. He knows I grow weed and he has no problem with that. He knows, too, that some of his contemporaries, including Mike Benziger and Phil Coturri grow spectacular weed.
Weed isn’t Cannard’s way of being in the world. I don’t take issue with that. As a culture, we have made far too much of weed. Put that in your pipe and smoke it. Sometimes I wish the whole cannabis conundrum would go away. I have even heard lifelong cannabis activists make that very point, though they also know that weed as a social and political issue won’t go away as long as it is illegal in the eyes of the federal government.
Cannard has gone on doing what his father, Bob Cannard, Senior, did, and what he himself started to do as a boy and continued to do as a young man. Now on the cusp of 70, he’s still growing organic vegetables at Green String, where he has a large crew of Mexicans, both men and women, who labor in the fields, and mostly young white women, like jovial Erin, who work in the Green String store and seem to love what they do. “I show the Mexicans what I’d like them to do,” Cannard says. “When they arrive at the farm they’re already good workers and they all know how to use a hoe without me telling them.”
Green String employees make between $15 to $17 an hour, they get regular breaks and they all learn how to drive the farm trucks and tractors safely. Cannard doesn’t pay himself. He can’t afford to, but he gets all his food for free. “I love what I do,” he tells me. “Not matter what kind of work it is, you have to love doing it or there’s no point.”
Erin and her sisters, who smile nearly all day long, six days a week, sell beets, radishes, cabbages, herbs such as thyme, mint and parsley, olive oil, vinegar, honey, raw milk, raw kefir, duck eggs, all kinds of cheeses. Three days a week, there is wholesome bread from Revolution bakery. Shoppers can also grind red corn and make their own polenta.
On a recent Saturday morning, Erin stood at the front counter in the little store, which is heated by a small wood-burning stove on chilly days. I bought two pounds of mustard greens, a flank steak which I selected from the freezer, and two dozen ripe clementines, which Cannard insisted I eat skins and all.
Cannard eats when he’s hungry, which is most everyday. He also eats to be healthy. “Nutrition is the best defense against illness and disease,” he tells me. “I don’t go to doctors. I take responsibility for my own health.” He adds “I’m in the sun when the sun is shining and I eat mineral-rich plants.”
How much longer Cannard will be able to work at Green String he isn’t sure, not because he’s aging, but because water is in short supply. By the first week of March 2021, all of the reservoirs were already empty, and very little rain was in the forecast. One day soon he may have to move to a part of California such as Yolo County, where water is far more abundant than in Sonoma. That would mean uprooting and tearing himself away from the land that he loves.
On the day I visited, Cannard had more work to do, namely put several thousands baby plants – sixty different kinds of vegetables—in a greenhouse. “We have to keep the spirit of diversity alive,” he tells me. “We have to share our love with plants and with customers, too. We have to maintain joyousness.” In the week ahead, he would get on a tractor and till, and also make his own compost. When the plants would go into the ground there would be a full moon. That much he knows. But the future is uncertain. “We have some wells,” Cannard told me. “But they won’t last long. This summer we might not be able to grow here.”
Uncertainty is an integral part of Cannard’s life. Rain might not fall, plants might not thrive, and crops might not make it to the Green String Store. Perhaps Chez Panisse will reopen soon and Alice Waters will want fresh fruits, vegetables and herbs from Sonoma.