Heaven on Earth
Special to The Union
Long before terms like “organic farming” became part of the mainstream lexicon, Nevada County’s Amigo Bob Cantisano was helping pioneer a form of agriculture emphasizing crop rotation, green manure compost and biological pest control, rather than manufactured fertilizers, pesticides, hormones and food additives.
For many, he is the face of the organic farm movement and has been in the business of making organic food accessible since the early 1970s.
Cantisano has lived and worked in Nevada County since 1971 and currently owns and operates Heaven and Earth, a small and diversified farm on San Juan Ridge.
These days, his principal work is as consultant to other organic farms or farmers needing his expertise in morphing their operation from conventional to organic. He’s been featured in the New York Times and helped found the Eco-Farm conference, which celebrated its 30th anniversary in 2010.
It was a large purchase of rock phosphate for his soil in the early 1970s that led to a farm-supply business and his eventual status as a leading figure in the world of organic farming.
“I was farming Peaceful Valley Farm, which is about three miles outside Nevada City, in 1974,” Cantisano said. “I started a farm supply business, because at the time there was really limited access to things I needed. I had to buy a railcar’s worth of phosphate and after I got it out here, I thought I should tell people that I had more than I could use. One thing led to another, and our business started in the back of the barn on Saturday mornings.”
Peaceful Valley Farm Supply grew quickly, requiring most of Cantisano’s time and energy.
“It got much bigger in the ’80s and I didn’t know it at the time, but it turns out it we were one of the biggest organic farm suppliers on the West Coast,” Cantisano said. “People were coming to us from around the county and then farther and farther away as organic became more popular.”
By the late 1980s, Cantisano had cemented his status as a major player in organic farming.
“I was having people call me from all over the country asking for advice,” Cantisano said. “I was finding that I didn’t have adequate time to both run my business and provide information. Farmers needed a lot more detailed information than I could give in a couple of minutes over the telephone.”
Eventually, Cantisano sold Peaceful Valley to several of his employees and went to work full time as farm adviser, while also getting back to his first love, farming. Cantisano bought Heaven and Earth Farm in 2000, in part to focus his efforts locally. He grows a variety of crops, including fruits, nuts, vegetables and grapes. He keeps bees, raises chickens and distributes food for sale to local grocery stores, restaurants and farmer’s markets. He also uses Heaven and Earth as a platform for teaching young people how to become organic farmers.
“I take local people on as apprentices or employees and teach them about growing and some of them have become farmers or workers at other farms,” Cantisano said. “One of our goals is to get one or two kids a year inspired about growing things.”
Cantisano says that Nevada County seems to be a magnet for young people wanting to become involved in organic farming, but nationally, farming is an industry run by an aging population. He worries that farmers may one day be in short supply.
“The median age in agriculture is 58 years old,” Cantisano said. “That means that the majority of those people are getting close to retirement. If I had some influence in getting young people into farming, I would feel like I had made an important contribution.”
It seems odd that someone with Cantisano’s skill set would end up in an area where both the climate and soil make farming a challenge.
“It’s not by coincidence there are not very many farmers in the foothills,” Cantisano said. “Farmers typically migrate to areas where the climate is more favorable and the soil is more consistent. We just went through the month of March and I couldn’t do a single thing at my farm outside of pruning, because it was too wet. Last year, we got the latest freeze that I had ever experienced. It froze nearly all of my fruits and grapes and most of my vegetables. Climatically, it’s challenging and we don’t have very fertile soil. It takes a number of years to build the soil up.”
But Cantisano’s not leaving.
“I had a farm in Yuba City and the farming there was great, but there was no social life or people I could relate to,” Cantisano said. “I moved back to Nevada County because I had a circle of friends here, somewhat ignoring the fact that it’s a difficult place to farm. I could move to the Bay Area or Monterey County, but I’m drawn to the history and the people of the foothills.”
Cantisano can be reached at (530) 292-3619.
Tom Kellar is a free-lance writer who lives in Cedar Ridge. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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