By David Kupfer
“Essentially, all life depends upon the soil…. There can be no life without soil and no soil without life; they have evolved together.”
—Dr. Charles E. Kellogg, soil scientist and chief of the USDA Bureau for Chemistry and Soils
Without a doubt, the most outstanding takeaway lesson from my 40-year friendship with Amigo Bob Cantisano, an ally of mine in the organic farming movement, is that the key to successful organic and regenerative gardening and agriculture is healthy soil.
A Friend of the Land
Amigo Bob Cantisano, who died at 69 in December 2020 after a lengthy illness, was a ninth-generation Californian and San Francisco native. He was a direct descendant of a Spanish lieutenant in the 1775–76 Juan Bautista de Anza expedition, which established a modern-day land route between New Spain and Alta California.
As a child, Cantisano learned how to garden from his grandmother, and by the late 1960s, while living on various Northern California communes, he was growing pesticide-free food and learning from the pages of Rodale Press’s Organic Gardening and Farming magazine. In 1970 at San Francisco’s first Earth Day celebration, he was moved by a speaker discussing the impacts and hazards of pesticides, chemical fertilizers, and large monocrops on human health and the environment. Such experiences set him off on his uniquely impactful path through life.
In 1972, Cantisano and his first wife, Kalita Todd, started a natural foods buying club near Lake Tahoe, which introduced them to many organic growers and producers in California and beyond. In Yuba City, they began Star Farms in 1975 and Hoon’s Garden in 1976, and in 1977, recognizing the dire need for quality tools and soil amendments, they founded a wildly successful agricultural and gardening company, Peaceful Valley Farm Supply in Nevada City, along with farming partner Richie Marks, and operated it for 10 years.
Todd and Cantisano had four children together, and in 1999 created Heaven & Earth Farm on the San Juan Ridge in the Sierra Foothills of rural Nevada County, where Cantisano lived until he passed.
Cantisano was pivotal in early efforts to certify organic farms and products, having helped in 1973 to found California Certified Organic Farmers and collaborating in the production of an early trade journal for organic products. In 1981, recognizing the need for better communication and networking among organic growers in California, he worked with early Capay Valley organic farmer Martin Barnes and lifelong community activist Elizabeth Martin to organize an unprecedented gathering at the firehouse in Winters, California. That event subsequently evolved into the annual Ecological Farming Conference, which celebrated its 43rd anniversary in January 2023 in Monterey. Popularly known as EcoFarm, it is the largest sustainable agriculture gathering in the western United States.
In the late 1980s, Cantisano established Organic Ag Advisors—one of the first organic agriculture consultancy services in the nation—and for more than three decades advised hundreds of small and large growers on the West Coast and in Arizona, Central America, and Hawai`i, serving both organic farmers and growers making the transition from conventional farming.
He was personally responsible for the reduction and elimination of pesticide use on tens of thousands of acres of horticultural lands all over the world, and he shared his knowledge and experience freely with a new generation of farmers, students, researchers, and consultants.
Cantisano authored nearly 150 technical articles and bulletins, invented 16 products and techniques for organic farming that are in use throughout the U.S. and Central America, and helped craft the successful California Organic Foods Act of 1979 and SB 872, the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Act of 1986.
In 2001, Cantisano founded the Felix Gillet Institute on San Juan Ridge, which is dedicated to the identification, preservation, propagation, and distribution of heirloom perennial food-producing plants and trees of Northern California. The institute is named after Felix Gillet, a Frenchman from a family of nurserymen, who in 1859 at age 24 arrived in Nevada City, opened a barbershop, and began importing plants. Cantisano continued to run the institute until his death, but there was more work to be done.
Know Your Soil
To honor Cantisano’s memory and work, the Felix Gillet Institute, operated now by his second wife, Jennifer Bliss, has just published a useful and unique compilation from the notes and writings of this influential farmer, entrepreneur, leader, and activist.
Know Your Soil is a solid and practical handbook that shows how improving and maintaining soil health using a variety of natural inputs leads to greater plant health and increased soil carbon. By looking at soil biology through the lens of laboratory soil tests, you learn how to make strategic decisions that will impact both your soil’s long-term health and the productivity and profitability of your garden or farm operations. The book elaborates on each of the major soil nutrients and micronutrients and describes their roles in soil and plant nutrition with specifics on nutrient interaction and how to adjust their levels in the soil. It also goes into foliar feeding, cover crops, green manures, and compost, including the logic behind making and using compost teas. You’ll also find cropping recipes and details on a wide range of cover crop seed mixes.
Know Your Soil is an essential tool for gardeners and farmers, as well as for organic agriculture educators, advocates, and practitioners. It is a significant contribution to Amigo Bob’s legacy. ♦
Know Your Soil
By Amigo Bob Cantisano
Softcover, 142 pages, $9.99
All revenues from sales will support the Felix Gillet Institute. To order single copies, visit the online store at felixgillet.org. For information on wholesale and quantity discounts, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
David Kupfer, San Francisco born and raised in Marin, has been a freelance writer for 30 years, contributing to The Progressive, Bay Nature, The Sun, New Farm, Whole Earth Review, Earth Island Journal, Acres, AdBusters, San Francisco Bay Guardian, CCOF News, Reuters, and People’s World. He’s worked as an organic farmworker and advocate in California, Oregon, and Washington, and is a former executive director of the Environmental Action Committee of West Marin. He taught environmental studies and organic gardening at Marin County’s San Andreas High School and as well at UC Davis, where he graduated from the School of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences.