We Will Miss Him
Amigo Bob Cantisano was a true politician and I mean that in the best sense of the word. He passed away the day after Christmas 2020. Amigo changed my life, and if you care about clean food, healthy soil, and a sustainable future for us on this earth, he helped to change yours too. I’m convinced that it would have taken a lot longer for conventional agriculture to change its tune about organic farming practices if it had not been for Amigo’s persistence, determination and leadership.
Was it really 33 years ago? I can still remember the day I met Amigo Bob and Kalita Todd for a job interview at their home in a community in Grass Valley. It turned out to be one of the best days of my life. He ran Peaceful Valley Farm Supply, located in a shack in the middle of the woods up on the San Juan Ridge outside of Nevada City. I remember thinking it was a cool place with lots of great tools and supplies for gardeners and farmers and, if you were one of the lucky ones to get Amigo on the phone, loads of useful advice. I got a job there, my background was in Plant and Soil Science, but this gave me focus and direction pointing me into the world of sustainable agriculture.
At the time “Organic” felt like a movement. To be in it was to be surrounded by like-minded people that became lifelong friends. We worked hard to create ways for farmers to grow food without heavy chemical use. Amigo was one of the masterminds and many of us were on his team. Eventually I found myself involved in all sorts of sustainable agriculture activities and for the next 11 years I lived a rich life, much of it under the guidance of Amigo Bob.
Amigo was a lot more than a shopkeeper and farmer. He was a leader in the organic movement and I was a dedicated understudy. I worked with him to present and lead the day long “Sustainable Agriculture Conference Series” held in the places and focused on the crops that used the most pesticides across the state of California. This was one of the projects shepherded by the organization that Amigo founded, known at the time as The Committee for Sustainable Agriculture that eventually became the Ecological Farming Association.
The Committee for Sustainable Agriculture worked tirelessly to persuade conventional agriculture leaders and university agriculture departments that sustainable agriculture was in their best interest. I remember sitting in a meeting in a living room with Amigo and others on the Committee discussing the UC Extension Advisors that were our backroom supporters. These were the first Farm Advisors that were willing to dip their toes into the world of sustainable agriculture. It was a quiet bunch, and they tiptoed out onto the public stage with the help of Amigo’s encouragement.
At the time, doing these conferences was like walking uphill backwards, there was hardly a UC Co-op Extension agent that would say the words “Sustainable” or “Organic” let alone speak on the subject. As the lead organizer of these conferences, I was the one cold-calling UC Extension offices and researchers to invite them to speak. The most memorable day was calling Kern County Extension and having one of the guys say, “what is a woman doing calling to ask about agriculture”, and then responding “no way” would he speak on sustainable or organic farming practices. And then, there were the quiet ones that gladly joined the conversation. We had to carefully craft the topics around their expertise such as cover cropping in vegetables or mite problems on Strawberries or mildew on Grapes. But the point is, we got them in the room and the conversations grew from there.
These same extension agents later went on to start new research projects that would help pave the way for bringing evidence-based science to normalize the practices of cover cropping, or planting beneficial hedgerows, and that by adopting these practices farmers would end up using less pesticides.
When we got frustrated with the resistance from conventional agriculture, Amigo would be our biggest cheerleader, reminding us that there was more work to complete. He carried the torch into the future initiating and completing very important work. He had as many projects up his sleeve as a magician has tricks. One year at the Eco-Farm Conference, along with the wine tasting, Amigo surprised us by bringing 10 different varieties of Olive Oil to taste from olives that he had grown. He was extremely interested in rare fruits and he loved encouraging growers to plant beneficial insectaries. His work became global and eventually farmers from Europe to Central America were calling on him for advice and to help solve their problems.
It’s been many years now and lots of us have watched the organic story unfold. We truly were the frontline workers of that movement bolstered by Amigo’s vision, confidence, and dedication. There were lots of us that helped make the changes in agriculture that led to the organic farming laws and institutions we have today. Amigo would credit the farmers that were willing to try something new, the farm advisors that eventually came out in the open, and the willingness of those within the university establishment for having taken these risks to step out of their comfort zone. Amigo was a master of laughing things off and just kept going. He also knew how to have fun. I enjoy remembering how the talent show at the Eco-Farm conference was one of his favorite events to MC, and he loved the farm tours filling us with stories as we rode the bus with him from one farm to the other learning everything we could from farmers working hard to grow food organically.
And now we have what he has left for us – a goldmine of gifts and a boatload of work still yet to do. Thank you, Amigo, for being a pioneer for the Earth, and for all your encouragement and for your work ethic and love. I am grateful for our friendship and your big smile and you are forever in my heart and in the hearts of many.
© 2021 Essay and Photos by Starling Linden.
Starling Linden has been a part of the organic and sustainable agriculture community since 1987. She worked for the certifying organization CCOF, California Certified Organic Farmers, and the Committee for Sustainable Agriculture for over ten years. She has worked in nurseries and on farms, is an artist and a little more recently, Andy’s partner and working with him on Mariquita Farm.
Top photo: Amigo Bob conducting a farm tour, Central Valley, 1989.