One of the most widely experienced and influential figures in California organic agriculture, Amigo Bob Cantisano is perhaps best known as the founding organizer of the annual Ecological Farming Conference, which celebrates its 30th anniversary in January 2010 and is the largest sustainable- agriculture gathering in the Western United States. Recognized among conference-goers for his adept leadership of Eco-Farm’s popular bus tour of Central Coast organic farms—and for sporting trademark shorts and sandals no matter what the weather—Amigo (a high-school girlfriend gave him the nickname) has been involved with diverse aspects of organic foods and farming since the late 1960s. In 1990 he and his wife Kalita Todd received the Stewards of Sustainable Agriculture (Sustie) award from the Ecological Farming Association.
Cantisano is a ninth-generation Californian, directly descended from a lieutenant in the 1775-76 Juan Bautista de Anza expedition, which created the first land route between New Spain and Alta California. He began gardening in earnest while living on communes in Northern California. He had a stint as dishwasher and prep cook at an early San Francisco vegetarian café (Good Karma) and as an employee of the city’s first natural foods emporium (New Age)—both owned by Fred Rohé, whom Cantisano calls “the founder of the whole natural foods movement.” These experiences, plus exposure to Rodale Press’s Organic Gardening magazine and a speaker’s warnings about chemical pesticides at San Francisco’s first Earth Day celebration, clinched Cantisano’s early interest in organic food.
While living on the shores of Lake Tahoe in the early 1970s, Cantisano and some friends started a natural foods buying club. This evolved into a wholesale distribution company and retail storefront, eventually introducing him to many organic growers and producers in California and beyond. He was involved in early efforts to certify organic farms and products, helping to found California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF), and he collaborated in the production of an early organic-products trade journal.
Cantisano has also worked as an organic farmer, growing a variety of crops over the years in a succession of California locations. His search for a reliable source of organic inputs led him to found a farm supply company, Peaceful Valley, which grew at an astonishing pace and currently operates under different owners in Grass Valley, California. His desire for better communication among organic growers in California prompted him to organize a 1981 gathering—featuring a talk by pioneering beneficial-insect purveyor Everett “Deke” Dietrick—that evolved into EcoFarm (whose organizers have recently dropped the hyphen in their moniker). Cantisano established the first organic agriculture advising business in the country, and served for many years as the only independent organic farming adviser on the West Coast. Operating for more than two decades now as Organic Ag Advisors, he has consulted with hundreds of small and large growers of fruits, vegetables, wine grapes, grains, and other crops—advising both organic farmers and those making the transition from conventional farming.
A lively narrator with vivid recollections of many significant chapters and characters in the history of California organic culture and agriculture, Amigo Bob Cantisano has countless stories to tell. Sarah Rabkin interviewed him on April 7th and 9th, 2008, in the farmhouse kitchen of his Heaven and Earth Farm, located on the San Juan Ridge in California’s Sierra Nevada foothills, north of Nevada City.