Faces of Sonoma - Summer 2012
Ladislav Merenec; Bob Cannard
Home is a bucolic little slice of untamed sweetness at the edge of Sonoma’s incorporated boundary. Just under two acres of productive black earth, a shambling old farmhouse squatting square in the middle. A man could eat year-round without leaving this place, there’s a fruit salad of trees growing here. Plum, peach, lemon, apple, persimmon and walnut and fig. Three ornery goats give sweet milk every day, and the eggs from the hens have sun-yellow yolks. Ladislav Merenec knows how lucky he is. He’s lived long enough to be grateful.
Born and raised in Communist Czechoslovakia on a landlocked bit of ground torn to pieces by World War II, Merenec remembers watching German tanks roll through Prague. He remembers his mother begging the butcher for meat, and the partisan zealotry that dismantled his country. There’s a ‘Ron Paul’ campaign sign staked out near the mailbox, and he worries for the country he has claimed now as home. “I see it coming,” he says grimly of America’s political landscape. “So we have this,” he says with a gesture that encompasses the farm. “Very pure, very sustainable. It’s the only way to be healthy. I don’t want to live in a coop.”
Ladislav Merenec could never, ever live in a coop, but once, on purpose, he lived in a car. It was 1983 and Merenec had made his way to Redwood City for a vacation that turned permanent because, after California, the idea of a life in the Czech Republic felt impossible. Even Germany—where he’d lived just before making his way here—seemed suddenly out of the question. “Acch, the Germans!” he says with the dismissive swipe of a hand. “Too heavy, not easy-going. Even their jokes are terrible, they make me cry.” He had two jobs, both illegal, and a battered VW Rabbit. “I work all day, then I work all night. Why do I need apartment for?” he asks, as if the logic is so obvious as to make explanation redundant. “I don’t trust the banks, so I cash my check each week and hide money in my toolbox. When I have twenty thousand, I buy a vintage Suzuki Savage. To impress the ladies,” he says with a devilish grin.
Merenec labored this way for several long years, job-hopping from one sweatshop garage to another. He fixed lawnmowers and cars and eventually planes; he got very, very good with machines. But he was illegal and the bosses were terrible. “Immigrant bosses from Czech Republic were worst,” he explains. “Always worst, my own countrymen.” He spent a bit of time puzzling through his job problem, arriving at a solution with a flash of blinding clarity. He needed to get legal, and he needed to get legal quick. “I need to meet lady. It is fastest way.”
She was French-American and wildly hot-tempered, but she and Ladislav Merenec gave it a go. He hung on for eight months, but then had to quit it. Sleeping one night at the office of a friend where he’d sought refuge from his failed marriage, Merenec woke to the loud crack of shattering plate glass. Peering into the street he spied the ex with a gun, screaming in French for revenge. Merenec realized that he needed to step quickly, and headed into Trinity National Forest with sluice box, pick and pan. To this day he’s got a nice little nugget collection stashed somewhere secret. He keeps it around just in case.
In due time, Merenec heard United Airlines was hiring. They needed all sorts, from luggage handlers to mechanics. “I go there at 6 a.m.,” Merenec remembers. “The early bird catches the worm!” There were uncountable thousands in the long line that day, but at its head, very first, was Ladislav Merenec, a green card nestled snug in his hip pocket.
First came the job, and next came the girl, a soft-spoken, fair-haired woman called Marcella. They had a child, Emily, and then another, young Josef; they bought the farm, planted things, slowed down, got low. Grew a big garden in summer, planted a generous stand of cabernet grapes. Merenec even tried his hand at home butchery a few times. “It is drastical to butcher your pets,” he admits. “I am not strongly believing in God, but the Bible says the Lord gives animals for our disposal. I take it and say ‘thank you.’”
Merenec is a man with much to be grateful for; he’s seen much and done much and at last he is home. He came the long way, took the circuitous route, but managed to plant himself where he was meant to grow.
From the 2012 summer issue of SONOMAe arrives in worn blue jeans, his hands caked with dirt. The shirt he’s wearing looks pre-Clintonian. He grabs a baguette and a brick of white cheese, sits atop an old picnic table and begins eating.
Bob Cannard is fairly undaunting in his old clothes, eating his peasant lunch with dusty hands. But make no mistake: Cannard is the big fish of the sustainable food movement, he is the Big Papi of holistic nutrition. With his international reputation and his legioned disciples, he could easily parlay his clout into piles of money. But instead he lives monkishly at the top of a long road: no television, no computer, no virtual friends.
“I made $6,200 in taxable income last year. I don’t own stuff. I don’t buy stuff. The only thing I have is my integrity,” he says, his mouth full of cheese.
Cannard’s Sonoma credentials are deep and wide as they come. His equally outspoken father started the Kenwood Nursery on Highway 12 some five decades ago. “It’s now somebody’s gift shop,” Cannard says with a shrug, and you get the sense that this is a man who moves on from things.
He was married once, but now isn’t. He mentions two children, but doesn’t dwell there. What Bob Cannard cares about most is growing good food, because he believes that eating good food is a transformative thing.
“If humans ate good food,” he says, leaning in, “there would be no more war or strife in the world. It takes three generations in any breeding program to impact the phenotypic outcome. Good food produces etheric sweetness. If we could change food consumption worldwide for that long, your great-grandchildren could live in a world without war, famine, jealousy, betrayal... But instead, because of inferior, weak, nutritionally compromised food, we leave a wake of misery. All our worst human instincts are the direct by-product of bad food.”
He leans back and grins, pleased to play the provocateur.
Cannard is aware that his ideas are unconventional. In the seventies, when he led the charge for organic food, he endured the derision and the name-calling with equanimity. “They called us ‘Fruits and Nuts,’” he says with a smile. Sticks and stones, and so what? “I’ve never been a part of the lemming pack,” he says, jutting his chin.
Cannard calls himself a gardener with charming humility, a claim somewhat like Picasso admitting to a bit of dabbling with paint. Cannard’s Greenstring Farm, the vast farming co-op headquartered on 140 acres of Petaluma dirt, has carried his reputation into the kitchens of world-class chefs. Alice Waters and Cannard have a standing quid pro quo: his vegetables for her kitchen compost, which he brews into tea for his soil. “Fifty-fifty,” Cannard explains of his approach to land stewardship, “one crop for people, the other for mother nature.”
As a young man, he dropped out of a college he won’t name, frustrated to discover they weren’t interested in real inquiry. “They were interested in making me compliant,” he explains, an assignation that has never jibed with Cannard’s nature. Instead, he self-directed his studies and deepened what was instinctive; a belief that when left unmolested, nature always bests man’s manipulations.
“Why do we have to do so much? Kill bugs and fertilize and weed-kill and so forth? In the structure of nature’s true instincts, things seem to get along just fine. Leave her alone and she’ll build something beautiful,” Cannard says. “A plant is naked. It doesn’t have any deception. It doesn’t wear lipstick. It doesn’t wear dark glasses or disguises or perfume. Pay attention. Look at a plant, at its physicality. Like a doctor looks at a patient, analytically. Successful gardening is about paying attention.”
He taught for 23 years at Santa Rosa Junior College, his bosses happy to swap the missing degree for Cannard’s lifetime of applied practice. He spearheaded the effort to require that genetically modified foods be plainly labeled, a grassroots campaign the Monsanto Company spent $7 million to oppose. “They ran a campaign scaring people into believing we would all die of starvation if the legislation passed,” he says, rolling his eyes.
These days he has distanced himself from the organic movement somewhat, saddened by what he perceives as its co-option. “The Federales have taken over the organic food movement. Government interference is organized and designed to make sure the people don’t rise up.” He is irascible, erudite, loquacious, and lean, his slim body moving with the ease of a much younger man. Fifty-nine-year-old Bob Cannard talks the talk and walks the walk. “My goal is to transform society,” he says.
From the 2012 summer issue of SONOMA