Could a controversial farmer in California have found the most effective way to grow food in a warming world?
One afternoon last March, on a small vegetable farm that Paul Kaiser runs in a particularly chilly valley in Sebastopol, California, a group of agriculture specialists gathered around a four-foot steel pole. The experts had come to test the depth and quality of Kaiser’s top-soil, and one of them, a veteran farmer from the Central Valley named Tom Willey, leaned on the pole to push it into the dirt as far as he could. On a typical farm, the pole comes to a stop against infertile hard-pan in less than a foot. But in Kaiser’s field, the pole’s entire length slid into the ground, and Willey almost fell over. “Wow, that’s incredible,” he said, wondering if he’d hit a gopher hole. The whole group burst out laughing. “Do it again! Do it again!,” said Jeff Mitchell, a longtime professor of agriculture at the University of California at Davis.
The group repeated the exercise, over and over—for photo ops, and to make sure that Kaiser really had accomplished the various feats he talks about, which he does almost incessantly these days. It’s not the easiest sell. Kaiser, an ebullient former woodworker who is only 40, farms a mere eight acres, and harvests fewer than three of them. Nonetheless, his methods are at the forefront of a farming movement that is so new (at least in the U.S.), and so built for a climate-changed world of diminishing rains, that it opens up gargantuan possibilities. One might call this methodology sustainability on steroids, because it can generate substantial profits. Last year, Kaiser’s Sonoma County farm grossed more than $100,000 an acre, which is 10 times the average, per-acre income of comparable California farms. This includes Sonoma’s legendary vineyards, which have been overtaking farmland for decades, largely because wine grapes have become much more lucrative these days than food, at least the way most farmers grow it.
Kaiser manages all of this without plowing an inch of his ground, without doing any weeding, and without using any sprays—either chemical or organic. And while most farmers, even on model organic farms, constantly tinker with various fertilizer cocktails, Kaiser concentrates on just one: a pile of rotten food and plants, commonly known as compost, and lots of it. Kaiser adds this compost to a rare blend of farming practices, both old and new, all aimed at returning dirt to the richest, most fertile seedbed possible. “It’s unique,” Mitchell told me after his visit. “I’ve never seen anything approaching that kind of thing.”
Source: Todd Oppenheimer for Craftsmanship, January 15, 2015