13 Feb Burkhard Bilger

Waters’ idea of a model farmer is Bob Cannard, who supplies much of the produce for Chez Panisse. Cannnard is a burly fifty-two-year-old with the unruly silver mane and penetrating eyes of a nineteenth-century abolitionist. His twenty-five-acre farm lies in the foothills of the Sonoma Mountains, a rugged, verdant landscape hummocked by old lava flows and gnarled with vineyards. He grows dozens of different kinds of planets, including olives and grapes, avocados and limes, eight kinds of onions and fifty kinds of tomatoes. As a former agriculture instructor, he can wax arcanely eloquent about their biochemistry – their oxidates, exudates, and silicates, or the few parts of gold per million in carrot leaves. Mostly, though, he’s concerned for their souls.“There is damn little contentment in humanity today, and most of that is because our food has no contentment itself,” Cannard told me. A plant raised in a tedious monoculture and bloated on an unvarying, industrial diet can’t help but pass its listlessness on to us: most produce has less than fifteen per cent of the minerals it had a century ago. “I want my plants to have a life of choice, with all the nutrients they could possibly desire,” he said. “I want them to have their happiness, to build their etheric sweetness. I want people to eat that food and have vegetable dreams.”

Cannard not only feeds his crops with compost; he brews hundred-gallon vats of nutrient “teas” and sends them coursing through his irrigation system. He throws in handfuls of crushed oyster shells, sea salt, and volcanic rock, cartons of eggs and milk, and jugs of molasses. Some days, he’ll make a lavender or rosemary tea, to revive his plants with “energetic aromas”. Other days, he’ll add some worm castings or swallow droppings, from birds that nest under the eaves of his house. The bacteria, he says, help his crops absorb nutrients from the soil. After twenty-eight yers of farming, Cannard can tell at a glance what his crops require. “A plant doesn’t wear makeup or dark glasses or anything,” he says. “It will just sit there in its nakedness and show you how it’s feeling through its color, its posture, its textures, its anchorage.” His farm is a kind of spiritual retreat for stressed-out crops. Even the wind and the wild birds, he says, sing to his vegetables.