By David Kupfer
One of the most experienced, astute, opinionated, and influential players in the Organic Farming Movement, Amigo Bob Cantisano passed after an 8 year battle with throat cancer at age 69 surrounded by his family on December 26. He was a rare ninth-generation Californian, directly descended from a Spanish lieutenant in the 1775-76 Juan Bautista de Anza expedition that led and created the first land route between New Spain and Alta California.
Just as his ancestors were pioneers in their own right, Cantisano distinguished himself by being a singular powerhouse in the organic horticulture field for nearly half a century. A San Francisco native, as a child, he first learned how to garden from his grandmother, and in the late 1960s began growing pesticide-free food while living on communes in the City’s Haight Ashbury district and in Mendocino County. He first was employed at Good Karma, an early San Francisco vegetarian café, and at the City’s first natural foods emporium “New Age,” both owned by Fred Rohé, whom Cantisano called “the founder of the whole natural foods movement.” It was these experiences, along with exposure to Rodale Press’s Organic Gardening magazine and a speaker at San Francisco’s first Earth Day celebration in 1970 on the impacts and hazards of pesticides, chemical fertilizers, and large mono crops to human health and the environment, that set him off on his life-long crusade that extended through his life.
In 1972, Cantisano with his partner Kalita Todd, started a natural foods buying club that became “We the People Food Coop” in Tahoe Vista near the shores of Lake Tahoe. That experience introduced him to many organic growers and producers in California and beyond. In Yuba City, he and Todd began Star Farms in 1975, Hoon’s Garden in 1976, and in 1977, Peaceful Valley Farm in Nevada City, growing a wide variety of crops. Recognizing the dire need for quality tools and soil amendments, he and Todd, along with Peaceful Valley farming partner Richie Marks, established the wildly successful ag supply company Peaceful Valley Farm Supply in 1977 in Nevada City and operated that for 10 years before selling it. The couple went on to have four children together, along with birthing Aeolia Olives & Oil Company which existed from 1993 to 2004. In 1999, Todd and Cantisano founded Heaven & Earth Farm on the San Juan Ridge in the Sierra foothills of rural Nevada County, where he still lived until he passed on December 26, 2020. They later separated and Cantisano married Jenifer Bliss in 2015.
Cantisano was pivotal in early efforts to certify organic farms and products, helping in 1973 to found California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF), and he collaborated in the production of an early organic-products trade journal. In 1981, recognizing the need for better communication and networking among organic growers in California, along with Capay Valley Organic Farmer Martin Barnes and Community Activist Elizabeth Martin, he organized an unprecedented gathering at the Winters, CA Firehouse that featured a talk by pioneering beneficial-insect purveyor Everett “Deke” Dietrick. That event subsequently evolved into the annual Ecological Farming Conference, now held in Monterey. It celebrates its 41st anniversary in January 2021 and is the largest sustainable agriculture gathering in the Western United States.
In the late 1980's he created a consultancy service, Organic Ag Advsors, one of the first organic agriculture advising business in the nation. He never attended college. For more than three decades, he consulted with hundreds of small and large growers of fruits, vegetables, wine grapes, grains, and other crops, on the West Coast, in Arizona, Central America and Hawaii, advising both organic farmers and those making the transition from conventional farming. As one of the first insect control advisors on the West Coat, Cantisano worked to serve the needs of hundreds of organic farmers, and was personally responsible for the reduction and elimination of pesticide use on tens if not hundreds of thousands of acres of horticultural crops all over the world and shared his knowledge and experience freely with a new generation of farmers, students, researchers, and consultants. He told me he set up trials, did research on farms, tried out many new ideas. “My main job was to get my clients to rethink the problem of soil fertility. How are we going to get to fertility without buying fertilizer? How are we going to get to pest control without buying pesticides? We’d forgotten that soil fertility is inherent and just, it needs managing." His unconventional approach and challenging skepticism gained the respect and admiration of those who once questioned his approach. Cantisano recognized early on the need for scientific validation of his own field observations and worked with researchers to develop new innovative agroecological approaches to horticultural crop management. “He was The Godfather of California organic farming, assessed Madera organic farmer Tom Wiley a 40 year farming veteran himself. “He had such knowledge and authority, he was responsible for taking organics beyond small farmers like ourselves. He was determined to remove as much toxins as he could.”
Cantisano also authored nearly 150 technical articles and bulletins and was the inventor of 16 products and techniques for organic farming that are in use throughout the US and Central America. He helped craft the successful California Organic Foods Act of 1979 and AB 872, The University of California Sustainable Agriculture Education Program Act, both of which were enacted by the California Legislature. In 2001 he founded and continued to run until his death, the Felix Gillet Institute, which is dedicated to the identification, preservation, and propagation of heirloom perennial food-producing plants and trees of Northern California. Cantisano was completely inspired by Felix Gillet, a Frenchman who arrived in Nevada City in 1859 when he was 24. There Gillet, who came from a family of nurserymen, opened a barbershop and began importing plants.
"One of his visions," Cantisano told me, "was that the foothills could become productive orchard lands. He imported the first almonds, the first walnuts, the first plums, the first chestnuts. He got the Willamette Valley in Oregon started on filberts." Gillet, who died in 1908, also helped birth the silk industry in California by assisting in the planting of more than 170,000 mulberry trees, whose leaves are the sole food of silkworms, in Nevada and Placer Counties. Cantisano worked diligently to expand on Gillet's efforts. Twenty years ago he began a census of chestnut trees in the Sierra Nevada foothills. He and his friends collected nut samples from 275 trees, most of them nearly a century old. During three successive harvests, they sampled nuts for taste, peelability and size. They then selected the five best varieties, propagated them and gave saplings to 60 people, who altogether planted more than 4,000 trees, which at maturity each yielded 200 to 300 pounds of nuts, with virtually no care.
Cantisano’s overall assessment of the state of the Organic Farming Movement was that there have been huge changes in the past 50 years, “it has evolved from a backyard hippie phenomenon into a gigantic corporate hybrid. It is ironic that very group that ignored us, corporate agribusiness, has now swallowed us,” he said. “The origin of the organic farming movement was not particularly motivated by profit as much as focused on benefiting the earth. Today business in organic is busier because of the profit mentality. This different motivation has attracted a whole different crowd of players. This is very noticeable in the processed food arena, much more than the produce sector.”
Another interesting phenomenon he observed is the increasing trend of organic businesses being swallowed up by much, much larger firms, businesses that didn’t have any interest in organic until it became profitable. He grew quite concerned that organic farming has largely become dominated by large businesses, and felt that the corporate concentration of the original organic marketplace took the very same path and followed the very same model as the conventional food industry. Cantisano worried that those larger organic businesses are reducing the integrity of the Organic Movement by watering down the Federal Organic Standards.
“Big business has learned how to invest in people who can effectively impact the decision-making process. Lobbyist’s jobs are to protect and improve the position of the businesses they represent, and those lobbyists are able to attend all the National Organic Standards meetings that have limited comment periods and have one-on-one connections with all the individual federal organic regulators. The smaller players simply do not have the resources to play as great a role anymore. There is some reaction when rule changes are not palatable with small groups such as the Organic Consumers Association or Cornucopia, but generally there is little representation of small farmers or consumer’ concerns and perspectives at meetings that have such a great impact on the Federal Organic Standards,” he observed.
A recent Washington Post investigation confirms Cantisano’s concerns regarding serious flaws in the organic certification program at the USDA. The Cornucopia Institute, an organic industry research and policy organization, is taking action to hold the USDA accountable. For example, Cornucopia sent a formal request petitioning the USDA to enact critical new regulations that will make it increasingly difficult for fraudulent organic imports to cross U.S. borders. “Sham ‘organic’ imports often make their way into the U.S. accompanied by altered paperwork that represents corn, soy, or other commodities as organic when it is actually conventional.” Cornocopia’s research director Will Fantle said. “The economic damage to U.S. organic producers is staggering as they struggle to compete with cheaper imports that often are not even organically produced.”
Cantisano reflected that at the beginning of the Organic Farming Movement, it was the small producers who designed and developed standards and oversight regulations, long time players like California Certified Organic Farmers Association, Organic Trade Association, and later OFPANA (Organic Foods Production Association of North America).”That’s all reversed now. CCOF was at it’s beginning totally farmer driven. Today there’s barely a farmer in the room working to influence the regulatory process and behind the scenes, major changes are taking place.” Cantisano also felt the quality of some certification businesses is suspect. “The enforcement of rules already in place about biological control and diversity, these rules are rarely enforced. When it comes to soil quality, biological control, the creation of windrows, I feel the certifiers are not doing an adequate job of enforcement, so we have a significant problem,” he said.
Cantisano was quite concerned that some of the rules in the Federal Organic Standards are not consistently followed and enforced. “While the majority of growers are doing a good job, if you are cutting corners, as businesses are prone to do to make bigger profits, and there is no budget for actual enforcement from the USDA, those rules can become somewhat ineffective. “Today,” Cantisano surmised, “the motivation, as the Organic Movement has become the Organic Mega Industry, is now profitability. Yes, there is now far more access to organic produce and products, but at the same time, the heart and the soul of the Organic Movement has been replaced by the bottom line, and that is the reality.” He felt that there are very few groups providing accurate information about Federal Organic Standard violations. The Watsonville-based Wild Farm Alliance is one source for background monitoring this issue, and another organization active in this arena is Organic Eye, which follows the increasingly suspect relationship between corporate agribusiness and government regulators that he feels has eroded the working definition of organics.
Cantisano was troubled about how domestic farm economics have so radically changed with the global growth of organic production and foreign competition. “Mexico can now produce organic food with labor costing about $14 a day, while in California it is $14 an hour, so even with a level playing field, the cost of production is dramatically different and the quality of produce from Mexican farmers has dramatically improved,” he said. “Wholesale buyers are finding produce from Mexico 30 to 50% cheaper. Even after paying freight, it is still a bargain. It is very difficult to compete with cheap foreign labor. Agriculture production is all about labor costs. Vegetable crops are becoming completely dominated by foreign producers.” He felt that unless consumers ask specifically for locally farmed products. and until there is greater demand and marketing of locally produced foods, this trending impact of the global organic industry will continue to hurt small and medium domestic organic family farmers who have been dependent on wholesale, “It is important to support people working at the lower level with living wages,” Cantisano said.
In an interview conducted last Summer conducted by Pollinator Advocate and Podcaster Terry Oxford of UrbanBeeSF.com, she posed this question to Cantisano: “I understand that when neonics were first invented, synthetic insecticides that get inside the systems of the tree, the poison is dispensed in the flower, the nectar, and pollen. So the flowers become poisonous to anything that's going in there for a little nibble of nectar and pollen. In California, I did an informal study and contacted all the major monocrop flowering tree brokers and nurseries that were raising just ornamental saplings. I found that more than 75% of them prophylactically use both neonics and fungicides together and have been for years. Some of the ones that would talk to me said, “UC Davis says neonics are fine for bees." What do you think about that? Everything flowers, ornamentals flower for a significant part of the year, and when any bird or insect goes in there, they're getting a poison dose, it could be low like 20 parts per billion. There's also been a test where they found 862 parts per billion in a crepe myrtle sapling. Because people don't eat from that tree. Understanding what you do about pesticides, what do you think about the fact that flowering ornamental trees are systematically treated with systemic poisons for 15 plus years in California how does that sit with you as a farmer?”
Cantisano responded, “The prophylactic application of anything, it doesn't matter what it is, without actually knowing you have a problem, is a mistake. The whole approach of kill everything first, anything that moves, is actually not a sustainable system. It requires more pesticides over time and or more powerful ones. The opportunity to actually control these pests without pesticides is still there. It's just a matter of the decision and commitment by the owners of the plants to do so. There's just absolutely no reason to be annihilating pests with high amounts of systemics. No matter what flavor they are, they're all problems once they get out into the tissue outside. Then insects and the other things that are eating on them, they're being affected by it. There's no doubt about it, it's a bad idea.
It only makes the manufacturer’s wealthy, doesn't really do anything for anybody else. Except the people that apply them can raise lots of trees in pots without having to pay very much attention because they've got a one size fits all pesticide. They can apply that and hopefully control for themselves every potential problem with any problem that might occur in a season's time. It's a foolish belief. However it's how people mostly operate and they're trying to cut costs and cut time, and get things done without putting the maximum amount of effort into it. They want to put the minimum amount in, and that shortcut approach is how it ends up people using poison. Every kind of pest can be controlled without poison. There isn’t a single bug on the planet that can’t be controlled without poison, every time. But it's a matter of committing to that, looking for alternatives or developing beneficial insects that can attack and prevent the problems spreading from the plants.
It's also a need to educate the consumer that buying plants that have systemic pesticides in them is not a good idea. It’s bad for you, bad for the environment, bad for your kids. What's needed is more education, it’s the critical component about moving any of this kind of stuff forward, getting people more educated about what the risks are with using those materials, and what the alternatives are. That's how I got into this thing, I just became fascinated with the alternatives, it turns out there's a ton of them.
You have to reset your mind about what is successful and what kind of materials or what kind of approach you need to take. But between crop diversity, biological control. plant nutrition, soil health, and irrigation management, all of these add up to whether the plant is healthy, or the pests or rather the insects, or the human being is healthy, or whether it's got susceptibility. What we're learning is, the more you develop resistance, the stronger the plant is, the less it needs intervention of any form. That's the key to moving this thing forward
At the end of his life, Cantisano surmised that the good news is that organics is a now major industry. “What has occurred is great, the changes have provided more consumer access to organic produce, more organic products, better soil management, stricter requirements regarding pesticide management, increasing use of biological control and soil benefiting crop rotation. I’m positive and optimistic. It’s just going to take another lifetime or two before things really completely change. I think someday we’re going to look at conventional agriculture as, “that’s how it used to be,” and we’re going to call organic farming “conventional,” because it’s the conventional way to do it. It’s kind of interesting that that term even got used, because obviously until the fifties, that wasn’t agriculture, either. Conventional agriculture was pretty much organic. So it’s this kind of interesting switch in a fifty-year span. Now we’re going back in the other direction. It takes a long time for that balance beam to shift fully. But it’s shifting in the other direction. We are no longer slipping down the wrong slope agriculturally.”
“Amigo Bob was a powerhouse to be reckoned with,” his wife Jenifer Bliss said. “His wisdom and inspiration will live on around the world.” He made plans, she said, for his remains to be turned into compost to feed the soil. “Being an organic farmer, Amigo knew that compost is the foundation of all the best organic farming,” Bliss said. “It is only fitting that he should be composted and become the living biology that will inoculate and nourish the composts, farms and gardens of others. Cantisano decided to have his body composted in the world’s first human composting facility, just opened for business this month in Seattle, Bliss said. Cantisano’s family is accepting donations to help cover the costs with a GoFundMe page and the resulting cubic yard of compost should be ready for pick-up in a month. “In death, Amigo continues to be a pioneer,” she said
David Kupfer has written for The Progressive, The Sun, Bay Nature, Earth Island Journal, AdBusters, Reuters, New Farm, Whole Earth Review, Yes, Acres USA, Backpacker magazines and worked as an organic grower in California.