Sunday, August 21, 2011

Green String Farm

Green String Farm nestles against the leonine flanks of Sonoma Mountain in the southeastern corner of Petaluma. It is just a short drive down the highway, right where Adobe Road takes a sharp curve east through the hills.

I can't remember exactly how I stumbled on this local treasure. It was recently and it was on the Internet, of course, venue for most of my explorations these days.

Searching for something or other about sustainable agriculture I followed a series of links which ended up at a Web site with news of unexpected riches right here in southern Sonoma County. Green String Farm and Green String Institute have been operating for nearly a decade and co-founder Bob Cannard has been an icon of the organic movement -- a famed purveyor of highest quality vegetables and fruits to Alice Waters herself -- for more than thirty years.

This was all totally new to me, local gardener for lo these thirty-four years.

I didn't waste any time in checking out this new-found cornucopia. As it happened they were having an open house so I was able to get the whole story in person.

First off, the farm store deserves a mention. Open throughout the year, summer and winter, every day except major holidays, it offers up heaps of "Beyond Sustainable" produce along with eggs, cheese, and dried and canned items produced on site -- all for affordable prices. Part of the farming philosophy that shapes this enterprise is the intent to grow good food at reasonable cost for local markets. No shipping pricey organic fare for thousands of miles.

Wonderful, I thought, as I wandered through the charmingly rustic open air displays admiring baskets of bright red cherry tomatoes, piles of dark green zucchini, bins of golden peppers: If it's good enough for Chez Panisse, it's good enough for us home folks.

Along with its fabulous food, Green String Farm is also growing a new generation of organic farmers. That's where Green String Institute comes in. The open house was put on by the most recent crop of farm interns: an eager band of young people who had been selected to spend three months living and working on the farm while attending daily lectures by Bob Cannard about his unique approach to farming. The Institute, too, operates year round. There are new groups of interns coming in each season -- summer, fall, winter, spring -- and each group plans and organizes an event for the local community.

So, on a late August Saturday, with the sun beating down out of a cloudless blue sky, I went from booth to booth getting a crash course in "natural process farming." One of the interns demonstrated a very simple set-up for brewing compost tea in a five-gallon bucket full of water. With just a small amount of compost starter suspended like a tea bag, a little molasses, a pinch of flour, an air pump and a bubbler, you can launch an aerobic process for growing lots and lots of micro-nutrients that will give your plants a power diet.

There were other booths describing soil biology and plant health, the importance of adding igneous rock powders to boost soil minerals, and mug shots of all the different types of crucial soil critters. The displays and demonstrations were clearly aimed at encouraging us to try out the Green String methodology in our own gardens. It was like a science fair of smart motivated kids all presenting different aspects of the same experiment.

An intern led a tour up the hill and out into the wide summer fields dotted with fruit trees and patterned with long dark rows of vegetables. We got to see where the cherry tomatoes, zucchini, and peppers had come from.

Our group seemed even more interested in finding out where the interns had come from. The guide, an eighteen-year-old college graduate from Florida, patiently answered lots of personal questions: Are you going to be a farmer? Yes. What are you doing after this program? I'm staying on here to do some research. Are you a brainiac? Hmmm, if you say so. . . . Look over here at this nice field of chard . . . .

Interns come from all over the country (e.g. Florida, Michigan) and from other countries (e.g. Serbia) to spend three months living together in an old farmhouse, planting, tending, and harvesting the crops, running the store, and studying natural process farming as a business as well as a labor of love.

(People, there might be some hope for our common future if the cool careers are now out in the fields rather than on Wall Street.)

Some of the fields looked like what you would expect on a farm. But these were in transition and not fully representative of the "natural process" approach.

A cabbage patch gave a better idea of the technique. It looked like a weed patch, overgrown with tall seeding heads of what is in fact a companion cover crop that will be left to mature in place and eventually die back to form a thatched ground cover.

The field seemed alive, rustling with subtle motion. Suddenly a flock of birds swooped up out of the weeds to swirl and twitter in the air and then settle back down for more feasting on the plentiful seeds. The cabbages seemed almost like an afterthought, tucked in among the natural pasture. The principle is: A crop for the people, a crop for the soil (and the birds, and the insects). This is how Mother Nature does it, with plenty to go around.

A large field of tomatoes was even more striking -- it looked like it was made up of long tidy rows of weeds. You couldn't see the tomatoes at all until you were right on top of them.

The plants were not staked and sprawled along the ground amidst the weeds. The tomatoes will go to the farm store, the weeds will die in place and be dug back into the ground to enrich the soil. The argument is that this approach builds a complete, thriving soil biology which supports healthy plants with complete nutrition and full flavor.

The highlight of the day was listening to Bob Cannard talk about healthy soil and healthy plants. A tall, intense man in well-worn jeans and work boots, he strode into the capacious old barn filled with folding chairs, running his hands through short spiky grey hair. Completely covered with a fine film of dust, he seemed to have materialized out of the earth itself.

"OK, where do you want to start?" Barely waiting for the first tentative question from the group he launched into a long rambling discourse describing the natural processes that build soil wherever Mother Nature has a free hand. It all starts in the mountains with the rushing freshwater streams that gather up particles of rocks, plant debris, animal remains -- whatever is there. The streams bring this rich brew of "mountain tea" down into the flat lands where unencumbered annual flooding spreads it out and deposits the nutrients into the soil. That's the way it used to be everywhere.

But human activity has put streams underground and interfered in thousands of ways with natural soil fertility; so the farmer or gardener has to make up the difference by supplying the missing nutrients. Hence, natural process farming.

With words and ideas tumbling out almost faster than he could articulate them, his talk began to seem like one the roiling bubbling streams he was describing.

Here's a small sample from my scribbled notes, which are cryptic clues to a wholly integrated philosophy I as yet see only pieces of:

Use igneous rock powder from quickly cooled volcanic rock -- has 80 essential elements. Is para-magnetic, not di-magnetic or magnetic, which are low energy. (???) Supplement with calcium, also sulfur, which are lost in steam from hot lava.

Plants are meat eaters, consume bacteria protein, protoplasm.

"Fixed air" is what the plant fixes out of the air into its body, source of carbon. (?)

Too much nitrogen means a plant drunk, on crack -- a weak, sick, fat, "water-body" plant that attracts pests and disease. Natural process farming is very low nitrogen method.

Majority of soil food comes from cover crops. High diversity. (?) Allow them to come to fruition, produce their "seed babies" and die of mature contentment. Over time this develops a unified soil culture.

The gist of it all is that foods grown on soils alive with the full spectrum of nutrients are incredibly tasty and maximally nourishing.

When his time was up, he invited everyone present to stop by the farm store on the way out and pick up a free basket of cherry tomatoes. If there was any chance I hadn't been convinced by the speech, one mouthful of a little bright red cherry bomb of flavor exploding across my palate closed the deal.

What I took away from the day is that natural process farming tries to replicate Mother Nature's own methods of soil replenishment through compost tea, rock powders, and cover crops left to decompose in place.

I can hardly wait to try some of it in my own backyard. Even with no eager interns on hand to do the heavy lifting it can't be terribly arduous to sprinkle compost tea and rock powder on everything and throw out some seeds for cover crops. And, to fill in the gaps for what our yard doesn't manage to produce, it's really good to know that just down the road is an all-year every-day farm stand.

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