Farming for the Future

Paul and Elizabeth Kaiser are not your typical farmers. They turned their plot of land into an unusual field experiment, leading to much higher yields and much higher earnings. What are their secrets?

One afternoon in March, on Singing Frogs Farm, a small vegetable operation that Paul and Elizabeth Kaiser run 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 topsoil, 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 hardpan after 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 (3.2 hectares) and harvests fewer than three of them (1.2 hectares). Nonetheless, his methods are at the forefront of a farming movement that is so new, 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, the couple’s Sonoma County farm grossed more than $100,000 an acre (€227,000 per hectare), which is 10 times the average per-acre income of comparable California farms, including Sonoma’s legendary vineyards.

The Kaisers manage all of this without plowing an inch of their ground, without doing any weeding to speak of, and without using any sprays—either chemical or organic. And while most farmers, even on model organic farms, constantly tinker with various fertilizer cocktails, the Kaisers concentrate on just one: a pile of rotten food and plants, commonly known as compost, and lots of it. They adds all 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.”

Singing Frogs Farm may be minuscule in comparison with the mega-farms that feed most of us today. But each of Kaiser’s methods is being used, to some degree, by much larger operations—both in and outside the U.S.—with growing success. By combining all of these practices in one place, and taking a few to the extreme, the Kaisers have turned their farm into an unusual, and increasingly controversial, field experiment.

Perhaps the best name for the collection of their efforts is Organic Farming 2.0, because the standard practices of organic farming have fallen so far short of their environmental ideals. “On some of the big organic farms, the soils are incredibly destroyed,” Ray Archuleta, an agronomist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, told me. The reason Archuleta gave me is almost counterintuitive: while they do avoid chemicals, most organic farmers still resort to what are essentially artificial methods of cultivation, based largely on tearing up the ground with discs and spaders, the same way conventional farmers do, then abandoning it until the next season.

They also use too much water. As an illustration of Archuleta’s point, in the five years since Kaiser stopped plowing his fields, his irrigation levels have dropped by more than half, to as little as an hour a week, while production has steadily increased. He now irrigates almost exclusively with a drip system, through thin plastic tubes; meanwhile, some of his organic neighbors still run sprinklers, which require massive amounts of water, a good deal of which is lost almost immediately through evaporation.

This is a big deal, as weather patterns have made abundantly clear. California’s  historic drought has caused such panic that farmers  have gone on a frenzy of costly well drilling. This has caused water levels in California aquifers to drop so dramatically that in some areas the farmland has started caving in. All across the Midwest, conditions threatened a replay of the Dust Bowl in some of the same places that it struck the last time: eastern Colorado, New Mexico, Nebraska, Texas, Kansas and Oklahoma.

The sparse rainfalls simply highlight, and aggravate, a problem that has been accumulating for decades: the steady thinning out of our topsoil. “I never thought I would see the Dust Bowl again,” Archuleta says. “We’ve spent trillions of dollars and we’re still in the same place. What’s going on?”

If you listen to climatologists, droughts in California are likely to become the new norm, only worsening as the years go by. That is not just a West Coast issue. California has long served as the nation’s primary food basket, providing more than 90 percent of its artichokes, celery, garlic, plums, kiwis, avocados and walnuts and more than 50 percent of virtually every other fruit and vegetable Americans eat. When looked at from this perspective, the fields on this little farm are crawling with implications.

I first met Paul Kaiser at a Napa farming conservation conference, where he delivered his presentation in his signature Australian leather cowboy hat, which is so worn out that the wire rim hangs over his eyes like a broken lampshade.

On this particular day, Kaiser was given 10 minutes during a small side panel to present his standard, two-hour spiel. The constraint didn’t seem to matter, though. Kaiser is a lover of data, which spews from his brain faster than his tongue can keep up with it. Engaging with him is therefore an exercise in speed listening, like playing a taped lecture on fast-forward.

The lectures sometimes contain the kinds of sweeping claims one might hear from a 1960s-era dreamer. And some can be a little wobbly. But most, upon scrutiny, prove to have a surprising amount of solid science behind them.

Before Kaiser was done with his Napa presentation, for example, he had battered the room’s small audience with slides illustrating the evils of organic sprays, stark contrasts between the fertility of his fields and his neighbors’ and piles of stunning governmental and academic statistics.

Kaiser concluded the presentation with an ambitious definition of agricultural sustainability—as a circle with three pieces. “Sustainable farming methods are just one corner,” he said. “Economic sustainability is another, and social sustainability is the third.  Kaiser envisions a world where every city—even in the driest areas of the globe—is surrounded by small, healthy farms like his. In his estimation, the higher income these farms can generate will allow their owners to hire more laborers; and the workers will come because these jobs are skilled, full-time, and well-paying. Right now, Kaiser argues, what people throughout the world need most is good jobs.

As it happens, that very argument was made last fall in a joint report from none other than the World Bank, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and the United Nations. Kaiser so deeply believes in this future, and his model for it, that he evangelizes about his vision every opportunity he gets—at conferences and community events, in his newsletters and to visitors who come to his farm tours.

Evangelism, of course, rarely goes unnoticed. More than a few farmers have objected to the frequency of Kaiser’s boastful comparisons. Some describe him as a “know-it-all.” Some believe his system is ecologically dangerous. Others just think there is nothing special, or practical, in what he’s peddling.

“It sounds like a big garden,” says Ed Thompson Jr., American Farmland Trust’s longtime California director. “How many two-acre farms do we need to feed ourselves? Could the economic system support that? Would there be enough willing farm laborers?”

To Warren Weber, one of the state’s first big organic farmers, Kaiser is simply naive. “There is no one perfect way,” Weber told me. “He will go through all kinds of changes as he keeps farming.”

Yet plenty of others think Kaiser is on to something. People repeatedly return to his farm tours, seeking guidance as they strive to replicate his system, and a few already have increased their income by doing so. In 2013, his work was even commended by the U.S. Congress. When billed for talks now, Kaiser often packs the house. As an example, Kaiser spoke to a full house at this year’s EcoFarm Conference in Pacific Grove, California, a five-day thinkfest that has become the American West’s largest gathering dedicated to sustainable farming. At each highlight—such as his astronomical profits, or his equally astronomical measures of soil fertility—audible gasps were heard throughout the audience.

It’s enough to make a person wonder: Is Paul Kaiser an evangelist worth listening to?

Doomsayers have been warning about soil abuse since the dawn of agriculture, at least 5,000 years before Christ. We have also known how soil fertility gets rebuilt ever since 1882, when Charles Darwin published one of his more obscure discoveries: that topsoil is created by none other than the lowly earthworm, at a rate of 10 to 20 tons per acre (22 to 44 tons per hectare) each year. Worms manage this feat because, alone among earth’s creatures, they dine on rocks, mixing their minerals with roots, leaves and biology’s other leftovers for a nice, square meal. When it’s time to poop, out comes fertile soil.

But if that soil is beaten into the dusty powder that has become increasingly common all across the globe, there is nothing in it anymore for the worms—or, by extension, for the rest of the earth’s ecosystems. During the past few decades, soil scientists have found that this ecosystem is far more extensive than anything yet seen on land or in the sea. Some have counted more organisms in a teaspoon of soil than there are human beings on the planet.

Others, such as Noah Fierer, a professor specializing in microbial ecology at the University of Colorado, have found the biodiversity of soil to be so vast that it defies tabulation through today’s DNA tests. When examined under a microscope, the dirt in that teaspoon looks like a cross between an Amazon jungle and some exotic tropical coral reef teeming with seaweed, plankton and monstrous creatures from a Jules Verne novel. As all these invisible creatures collaborate, they strengthen the soil to hold water; withstand erosion; store nutrients and feed then to the plants; help build their immune systems; and, preliminary research suggests, stimulate symbiotic microbes in the human gut as we eat these plants, which strengthens our immune systems, too.

Considering all this activity, Kaiser, like a growing number of his peers, cannot understand the way we’ve treated the world beneath our feet. “What creates life?” he asks. “Sun, rain and soil. We can only impact one of these: soil. It’s the only thing on the planet that takes death and converts it back to life. And all we’ve done is destroy it.”

When Kaiser was in Costa Rica pursuing his graduate studies, a colleague who was studying two citrus orchards noticed something unusual. The first orchard, planted on the edge of a forest that was dense with trees, bushes and wild vines, had more than 90 percent fewer pests than the second orchard, which was in an open plain almost a mile away. Kaiser was stunned.

“You can’t get 90 percent reduction with chemical sprays,” he says. “And sprays kill everything—the pests and the beneficials.” (Beneficials are insects that don’t eat crops but instead help them grow. Bees, for example, help pollinate; others, like ladybugs and praying mantises, eat the insects that eat the crops.) Every farmer wants beneficials, but after spraying, the pests always come back faster and stronger than beneficials do. More sprays follow, and the death spiral widens. This process of destruction occurs whether the sprays are synthetic or organic.

In Costa Rica, Kaiser and his colleagues realized that the pest-free orchard escaped this fate for a simple reason: the beneficials were hanging out in the foliage bordering the orchard, which gave these insects an easy commute to manage the crops. At one point, Kaiser visited a banana plantation that had doubled its productivity simply by using the “supertree” Moringa oleifera to provide both shade and nitrogen, which is the most important nutrient to a plant.

In Kaiser’s mind, a pattern was emerging. “If you take care of Mother Nature first,” he says, “the food production is easy.”

In other trials in parts of Latin America, Miguel Altieri, a professor of agroecology at UC Berkeley, has reached much the same conclusion: in case after case, peasant farmers who used the natural resources on their own land to build up fertility earned higher profits, and often larger yields, than conventional farmers who used chemicals and other supplements of conventional agriculture. The newfound fertility through returning to old ways has been particularly dramatic in Cuba, as Craftsmanship Magazine reports in “Cuba’s Harvest of Surprises.”

In 2005, Kaiser returned to the U.S. to marry Elizabeth, raise a family and test what he had learned on his home turf. After nosing around for a few months, he finally found his target: Singing Frogs Farm, an eight-acre spread just outside Sebastopol. It was not the most obvious choice. The property had been neglected for years; it was cold and wet, on a slope that turned the farm into a neighborhood drainage sink, with no flat expanses for easy row cropping. In other words, Kaiser’s ideal piece of land. “I was looking for a place I could heal,” he says. “I knew I wanted to grow things, but I didn’t have any concept of what that meant.”

The Kaisers began farming the property using whatever tools they had inherited, plowing the ground like every other farmer does. Since the soil had gone uncultivated for years, simple weed growth had already banked the land with some pent-up fertility. So the farm quickly blossomed. But so did the labor. “The weeds were immense,” Kaiser says. “We were out there at night, with headlamps, weeding for hours!”

Then one spring morning, Kaiser saw a female killdeer, a local bird, screeching at his tractor. After a few more passes up and down the field, he realized she was protecting her eggs, which were nesting invisibly in the ground. When Kaiser stopped to inspect, he noticed all kinds of damage in the wake of his plow—cut-up worms and snakes, damaged beehives, valuable roots and bug colonies exposed to the hot sun. Some months later, after getting his thumb mangled in his tractor’s engine, he had an epiphany: “I am not doing this anymore!” he recalls thinking. “There has got to be a better way.”

After renewing his studies, Kaiser noticed a prodigious amount of literature extolling the virtues of “no-till” agriculture—in other words, farming without using machines such as a plow or spader to turn over the ground. The practice follows the second often-ignored rule of cultivation: disturb your soil as little as possible. Yet no-till farming had a surprisingly mixed record.

On the positive side, leaving old crops behind feeds the soil with a variety of crucial nutrients, as the plants decompose into rich compost; the roughage also minimizes water evaporation, erosion and the array of hidden damage that both cause. The federal government has been plenty blunt about this. In a 2010 report, the USDA said, “Tilling the soil is the equivalent of an earthquake, hurricane, tornado, and forest fire occurring simultaneously to the world of soil organisms.” Don Tyler, a USDA conservation specialist, has argued that one year of tillage can undo 25 years of an untilled farm’s soil improvement.

But no-till has its negative side, too: if fields aren’t managed with special care, no-till farming can lower productivity. It also tends to involve more pesticides and herbicides than tillage does, because the vegetation left behind has to be dealt with in some way. But spraying wasn’t an issue on Kaiser’s farm. To mimic what he’d learned overseas, he laced his farm with hedgerows of trees and shrubs favored by those “beneficial” insects. He also built his own greenhouses, so he could jump-start new plantings with seedlings that he let grow for four weeks instead of the standard two. His transplants allowed for constant harvests, even in winter.

To most farmers, a routine like this involves too much muddy trouble, and demands too much from their soil. Actually, they’ve got it backwards. The longer crops remain in the ground, the happier the dirt is—because all those Jules Verne creatures depend on plant roots for their food. This casts a new light on the myriad fields across the country that are disked and left fallow every winter. They aren’t resting; they’re dying.

As Jerry Hatfield, a crop physiologist with the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service, explained it to me recently, “You’re basically starving out your biological system if you are a farmer who lets a plowed field lie fallow. I always ask them, ‘How would you feel if I only fed you once a year?’” To Kaiser, this principle boils down to yet another simple lesson: “Keep roots in the ground at all times.”

Then Kaiser tried another experiment: instead of following the standard procedure of mixing a little fertilizer into his fields, he laid a thick layer of compost right on top. The choice had its risks. Compost is essentially nature’s version of a chef’s reduction: dense, rich, a potent blend of vegetation’s essences. It starts out as a bucket of discards—from our kitchens, from yard and tree trimmings and sometimes from nearby farmers’ manure piles.

To become usable, all these leavings have to thoroughly decompose; and once they do, they turn into something akin to concentrated dirt. Despite its liveliness, this material can be too much for young crops, burning their tender shoots with undiluted chemicals. With a little more reading, Kaiser discovered that he could neutralize his compost with calcium (from crushed oyster shells) and trace minerals (from rock powder). So he layered on the entire mess and planted straight through it.

Thanks to the nutrient balance in his new dirt, Kaiser’s seedlings, which were already robust, got an extra head start. “Our crops outcompete the weeds from the get-go,” he says. “So we just got rid of the weeding.” This high-intensity cycle—compost, transplant, harvest, repeat—has allowed Kaiser to produce up to seven crops of vegetables per acre every year. This is three to five times what most farms produce. What’s not to love about that?

One morning in July, two visitors arrived at Singing Frogs Farm from the Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems at UC Santa Cruz. One was Jim Leap, who for decades managed the center’s farm-and-garden program. Over the years, the UC garden, which created fertility on a rocky slope, became legendary, and so Leap had pretty much seen it all—until that morning.

As Leap and his colleague Darryl Wong strolled past Kaiser’s overflowing beds of vegetables, they seemed tickled by one innovation after another. Most farmers grow only a few varieties of vegetables. And some, including many who claim to follow “organic” or “sustainable” principles, concentrate on just one (lettuce being a common mainstay). This practice, called “mono-cropping,” is widely scorned. It exhausts the soil and narrows the variety of wildlife that would otherwise colonize a farm, creating a vacuum that stimulates pests.

By contrast, Kaiser aims for variety, in extremis. On a mere eight acres, he grows hundreds of native trees and shrubs. On the two and a half acres of this that he cultivates, he grows an equivalent variety of vegetables. These include broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, peppers, cucumbers, winter squash, lettuce and mustard greens—in about a half-dozen varieties apiece—plus 30 to 35 different kinds of tomatoes.

“There’s nobody else doing this,” Leap said, with a look of amazement.

One newly cultivated field was covered with a thick, felt-like blanket—Kaiser’s version of the miles of black plastic sheets you see during winter drives through Big Ag farmland. Those long sheets are called “plastic mulch,” and they are extremely effective—at suppressing weeds, holding in moisture and nurturing soil microbes. Every year, however, all that plastic gets trashed in landfills. Pointing to his blankets, Kaiser said, “These last me 10 years. When we roll them up in the spring”— here Kaiser suddenly broke into high-pitched song—“the soil underneath is gloooooorious!”

Could Big Ag’s mega-machinery handle blankets like these? “Sure,” Leap said. “If they can pick it up to landfill, they could pick it  up to reuse.”  Even the uncultivated pathways between the crop beds impressed Leap and Wong. On a typical farm, these are bare and hard; Kaiser’s were soft and green. “It’s so fun to see this working on a small scale,” Leap said, “because this is what everyone’s hoping to do.”

The farm’s abundance eventually led Leap to pester Kaiser with the issue that everyone raises: “I’m not sure if this is scale-uppable,” he said. Kaiser loves this question because it’s crucial, but he hates the way it’s always posed. “I used to think the best way to do this would be to have one large farm with a bunch of fields like this around a central hub,” Kaiser answered. “But my neighbor plants 44 acres, produces less than I do, sells at fewer farmers’ markets, and has fewer CSA [community-supported agriculture] members. So we don’t need to scale up. We need to have more small farms like this in urban cores, and fewer 100-acre farms 100 miles away from the people who eat the food.”

While most farm labor is part-time and seasonal, the work at Singing Frogs is full-time year-round. Labor costs in California are high, and Kaiser’s labor costs are higher still—acre for acre, he uses four to five times the number of employees that similar farms do. Kaiser also pays slightly higher wages than the local norm to match the higher level of skill that his system requires—to read soil conditions, adjust practices from bed to bed,and work quickly.

But he’s not paying for herbicides and pesticides, tons of fertilizer, heavy tractor use, constant fuel and machine maintenance or daily irrigation. So, he says, he still ends up well ahead of the game.

At one point during Leap’s tour, we all dug our hands into Kaiser’s soil. The dirt was richly aromatic but surprisingly lightweight. “It’s almost like potting mix,” Leap said as he ran it through his fingers. This was mostly because much of it was compost, which becomes somewhat fluffy as it dries. All this compost really scared Leap. “He’s using way beyond what’s common.”

Compost, it turns out, is a complicated creature. On one hand, its rich ingredients stimulate crop growth so effectively that one can’t help wondering why farmers don’t make greater use of it. “We just don’t have the carbon,” says Ray Archuleta of the USDA. Archuleta is mainly referring to the gap between current compost supplies and the 920 million acres (372 million hectares) currently planted with crops in this country. But he’s also calling compost “carbon” for provocative reasons. Carbon is bad, right? As it transforms into carbon dioxide, it’s the main cause of climate change. The same goes for nitrogen as it becomes nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas nearly 300 times as potent as carbon dioxide.

Well, carbon and nitrogen also are the primary ingredients in compost and, by extension, in the fertile elements of topsoil. So these chemicals are bad only if we put them in the wrong place—in our air, when they should be going back into the ground. As Kaiser puts it, “What do I need most as a farmer? Carbon for soil structure, and nitrogen for crop growth.”

On the other hand, compost has its ugly sides. Due to the world’s ceaseless pressure for more American crops, farmers everywhere have become addicted to nitrogen. And when fields contain too much nitrogen, it leaks into water supplies. At this point, Leap says, “every single aquifer under every agricultural operation in the state is polluted with nitrate.” Most nitrate poisoning comes from stormwater runoff from livestock feedlots, and from factory farms, which use abundant amounts of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers. Plenty comes from compost, however, which is typically loaded with nitrogen.

Strangely, some academic surveys have found that organic farmers, who love compost, tend to be among the worst nitrate polluters. And Leap fears that Kaiser might be a particularly prominent offender. Over the past few years, Kaiser has applied more than 60 tons of particularly high-nitrogen compost on each acre of his crops every year—five to ten times what is customary. Before each planting, he also supplements with a little organic fertilizer that contains extra doses of nitrogen, as well as phosphorus—yet another problematic nutrient.

“That’s unheard of,” Leap says. “That is a huge, huge, huge overapplication. If Paul wanted to be certified organic, that could really cause trouble.” Surprisingly, Kaiser’s farm is not certified organic—a stamp of approval that he resists, he says, because of its expense, its complications and its standards, which he finds superficial. Equally strangely, his customers don’t seem to mind; when polled, virtually all of them approved of Kaiser’s unconventional farming methods.

Kaiser argues that his circumstances are within bounds—for four reasons. First, he says the extra nitrogen is necessary because he’s farming so many more crops per acre than the average farm. Second, he says soil tests show that his nitrogen levels are “right where they should be for healthy crops.” Third, he says the crops are clearly not being overfed: on some, the leaves occasionally turn yellow, usually a sign of nitrogen deficiency. And fourth, he says his ponds, which catch the farm’s runoff, are visibly clear and full of wildlife. “All our fields and indicators show that our nitrogen levels are okay or not enough,” Kaiser says.

The problem is that, to some extent, both Kaiser and his critics are just guessing. Nitrogen and phosphorus are just two of the billions of ingredients, both elemental and alive, that create something called soil. Scientists have only recently begun to understand how this ecosystem affects fertility as its micro-inhabitants interact. Some of those interactions might excuse Kaiser’s excesses; others can make them worse. “We know less about the soil than we do about the moon, probably,” Morris says.

In the months since his visit, Jim Leap debated these questions—with himself, with Kaiser and with many of his organic-farming peers. The question that animated these exchanges was both basic and intractable. If Kaiser’s methodology is indeed flawed, is it fixable? “I’m just not sure he can produce at the level he’s doing now without these excesses,” Leap told me toward the end of our discussions. “I’m afraid it’s inextricable from his system. It’s kind of like his vegetables are pumped up on compost.”

Others are more optimistic. “Paul has probably developed enough soil to hold these excesses,” says Ray Ward, who runs a widely respected soil-testing laboratory in Nebraska. Ward’s endorsement does come with a warning, however. “He can’t keep building at this rate or eventually it’s going to spill out.”

On a frigid morning in January of 2014, I was sitting at a picnic table overlooking Singing Frogs’ fields while Kaiser and his wife, both huddling in fleece jackets, told me their story. The first signs of that year’s drought were already starting to appear, and I asked if they were worried.

“The crops will be fine,” Kaiser said with a shrug. “I’m worried about the trees.” Kaiser had faith in his crops’ fortitude, he said, because he doesn’t baby them with lots of sprays and fertilizers. This forces them to manufacture their own polyphenols—the core of a plant’s immune system. Plants, it seems, operate under the same axiom that humans do: Use it or lose it. “If you do all the defense for them,” Kaiser said, “they won’t defend themselves.”

Suddenly, Elizabeth called Kaiser’s attention to a little geyser of water spewing behind the barn—signs of a broken pipe. Kaiser groaned in frustration and trudged over to close a nearby connection. “I am really sick of these freezes,” he said as he returned to the conversation.

For the previous few weeks, the city of Sebastopol had endured temperature swings of more than 50 Fahrenheit degrees (28 Celsius degrees) every day, inspiring the local paper to describe the weather as desert conditions. “Two of the last five years, our last rainfall was February 1,” Kaiser said, “and it’s looking the same now.” The gaps left by low rainfall are filled each year by frosts—the first typically hits Kaiser’s property in late September, the last in late May.

“We get temperatures below 20 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 7 Celsius) at least four weeks a year,” Kaiser said. The reason is that Singing Frogs sits at the bottom of a shallow valley, which turns the air ten degrees colder, on average, than it is for their neighbors, who live just a few hundred yards uphill. That morning, Kaiser’s crops looked more discouraged than he was—many were wilted or dead. Ravenous whiteflies were buzzing everywhere.

When I called Kaiser months later, in the middle of spring, he was reenergized. Despite the drought, his harvests were abundant and profits were already higher than the previous year’s. This was partly because his competition had decreased—on many neighboring farms, crops had not survived the harsh, dry winter.

Meanwhile, Kaiser’s customers remained well fed. “At the farmers’ markets,” Kaiser said, “we’ve had people come up and say, ‘Is your cauliflower on crack?!’ ” 

Todd Oppenheimer is founding editor and publisher of Craftmanship Magazine, from which this was adapted (craftsmanship.net).

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Farming for the Future

Paul and Elizabeth Kaiser are not your typical farmers. They turned their plot of land into an unusual field experiment, leading to much higher yields and much higher earnings. What are their secrets?

One afternoon in March, on Singing Frogs Farm, a small vegetable operation that Paul and Elizabeth Kaiser run 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 topsoil, 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 hardpan after 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 (3.2 hectares) and harvests fewer than three of them (1.2 hectares). Nonetheless, his methods are at the forefront of a farming movement that is so new, 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, the couple’s Sonoma County farm grossed more than $100,000 an acre (€227,000 per hectare), which is 10 times the average per-acre income of comparable California farms, including Sonoma’s legendary vineyards.

The Kaisers manage all of this without plowing an inch of their ground, without doing any weeding to speak of, and without using any sprays—either chemical or organic. And while most farmers, even on model organic farms, constantly tinker with various fertilizer cocktails, the Kaisers concentrate on just one: a pile of rotten food and plants, commonly known as compost, and lots of it. They adds all 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.”

Singing Frogs Farm may be minuscule in comparison with the mega-farms that feed most of us today. But each of Kaiser’s methods is being used, to some degree, by much larger operations—both in and outside the U.S.—with growing success. By combining all of these practices in one place, and taking a few to the extreme, the Kaisers have turned their farm into an unusual, and increasingly controversial, field experiment.

Perhaps the best name for the collection of their efforts is Organic Farming 2.0, because the standard practices of organic farming have fallen so far short of their environmental ideals. “On some of the big organic farms, the soils are incredibly destroyed,” Ray Archuleta, an agronomist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, told me. The reason Archuleta gave me is almost counterintuitive: while they do avoid chemicals, most organic farmers still resort to what are essentially artificial methods of cultivation, based largely on tearing up the ground with discs and spaders, the same way conventional farmers do, then abandoning it until the next season.

They also use too much water. As an illustration of Archuleta’s point, in the five years since Kaiser stopped plowing his fields, his irrigation levels have dropped by more than half, to as little as an hour a week, while production has steadily increased. He now irrigates almost exclusively with a drip system, through thin plastic tubes; meanwhile, some of his organic neighbors still run sprinklers, which require massive amounts of water, a good deal of which is lost almost immediately through evaporation.

This is a big deal, as weather patterns have made abundantly clear. California’s  historic drought has caused such panic that farmers  have gone on a frenzy of costly well drilling. This has caused water levels in California aquifers to drop so dramatically that in some areas the farmland has started caving in. All across the Midwest, conditions threatened a replay of the Dust Bowl in some of the same places that it struck the last time: eastern Colorado, New Mexico, Nebraska, Texas, Kansas and Oklahoma.

The sparse rainfalls simply highlight, and aggravate, a problem that has been accumulating for decades: the steady thinning out of our topsoil. “I never thought I would see the Dust Bowl again,” Archuleta says. “We’ve spent trillions of dollars and we’re still in the same place. What’s going on?”

If you listen to climatologists, droughts in California are likely to become the new norm, only worsening as the years go by. That is not just a West Coast issue. California has long served as the nation’s primary food basket, providing more than 90 percent of its artichokes, celery, garlic, plums, kiwis, avocados and walnuts and more than 50 percent of virtually every other fruit and vegetable Americans eat. When looked at from this perspective, the fields on this little farm are crawling with implications.

I first met Paul Kaiser at a Napa farming conservation conference, where he delivered his presentation in his signature Australian leather cowboy hat, which is so worn out that the wire rim hangs over his eyes like a broken lampshade.

On this particular day, Kaiser was given 10 minutes during a small side panel to present his standard, two-hour spiel. The constraint didn’t seem to matter, though. Kaiser is a lover of data, which spews from his brain faster than his tongue can keep up with it. Engaging with him is therefore an exercise in speed listening, like playing a taped lecture on fast-forward.

The lectures sometimes contain the kinds of sweeping claims one might hear from a 1960s-era dreamer. And some can be a little wobbly. But most, upon scrutiny, prove to have a surprising amount of solid science behind them.

Before Kaiser was done with his Napa presentation, for example, he had battered the room’s small audience with slides illustrating the evils of organic sprays, stark contrasts between the fertility of his fields and his neighbors’ and piles of stunning governmental and academic statistics.

Kaiser concluded the presentation with an ambitious definition of agricultural sustainability—as a circle with three pieces. “Sustainable farming methods are just one corner,” he said. “Economic sustainability is another, and social sustainability is the third.  Kaiser envisions a world where every city—even in the driest areas of the globe—is surrounded by small, healthy farms like his. In his estimation, the higher income these farms can generate will allow their owners to hire more laborers; and the workers will come because these jobs are skilled, full-time, and well-paying. Right now, Kaiser argues, what people throughout the world need most is good jobs.

As it happens, that very argument was made last fall in a joint report from none other than the World Bank, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and the United Nations. Kaiser so deeply believes in this future, and his model for it, that he evangelizes about his vision every opportunity he gets—at conferences and community events, in his newsletters and to visitors who come to his farm tours.

Evangelism, of course, rarely goes unnoticed. More than a few farmers have objected to the frequency of Kaiser’s boastful comparisons. Some describe him as a “know-it-all.” Some believe his system is ecologically dangerous. Others just think there is nothing special, or practical, in what he’s peddling.

“It sounds like a big garden,” says Ed Thompson Jr., American Farmland Trust’s longtime California director. “How many two-acre farms do we need to feed ourselves? Could the economic system support that? Would there be enough willing farm laborers?”

To Warren Weber, one of the state’s first big organic farmers, Kaiser is simply naive. “There is no one perfect way,” Weber told me. “He will go through all kinds of changes as he keeps farming.”

Yet plenty of others think Kaiser is on to something. People repeatedly return to his farm tours, seeking guidance as they strive to replicate his system, and a few already have increased their income by doing so. In 2013, his work was even commended by the U.S. Congress. When billed for talks now, Kaiser often packs the house. As an example, Kaiser spoke to a full house at this year’s EcoFarm Conference in Pacific Grove, California, a five-day thinkfest that has become the American West’s largest gathering dedicated to sustainable farming. At each highlight—such as his astronomical profits, or his equally astronomical measures of soil fertility—audible gasps were heard throughout the audience.

It’s enough to make a person wonder: Is Paul Kaiser an evangelist worth listening to?

Doomsayers have been warning about soil abuse since the dawn of agriculture, at least 5,000 years before Christ. We have also known how soil fertility gets rebuilt ever since 1882, when Charles Darwin published one of his more obscure discoveries: that topsoil is created by none other than the lowly earthworm, at a rate of 10 to 20 tons per acre (22 to 44 tons per hectare) each year. Worms manage this feat because, alone among earth’s creatures, they dine on rocks, mixing their minerals with roots, leaves and biology’s other leftovers for a nice, square meal. When it’s time to poop, out comes fertile soil.

But if that soil is beaten into the dusty powder that has become increasingly common all across the globe, there is nothing in it anymore for the worms—or, by extension, for the rest of the earth’s ecosystems. During the past few decades, soil scientists have found that this ecosystem is far more extensive than anything yet seen on land or in the sea. Some have counted more organisms in a teaspoon of soil than there are human beings on the planet.

Others, such as Noah Fierer, a professor specializing in microbial ecology at the University of Colorado, have found the biodiversity of soil to be so vast that it defies tabulation through today’s DNA tests. When examined under a microscope, the dirt in that teaspoon looks like a cross between an Amazon jungle and some exotic tropical coral reef teeming with seaweed, plankton and monstrous creatures from a Jules Verne novel. As all these invisible creatures collaborate, they strengthen the soil to hold water; withstand erosion; store nutrients and feed then to the plants; help build their immune systems; and, preliminary research suggests, stimulate symbiotic microbes in the human gut as we eat these plants, which strengthens our immune systems, too.

Considering all this activity, Kaiser, like a growing number of his peers, cannot understand the way we’ve treated the world beneath our feet. “What creates life?” he asks. “Sun, rain and soil. We can only impact one of these: soil. It’s the only thing on the planet that takes death and converts it back to life. And all we’ve done is destroy it.”

When Kaiser was in Costa Rica pursuing his graduate studies, a colleague who was studying two citrus orchards noticed something unusual. The first orchard, planted on the edge of a forest that was dense with trees, bushes and wild vines, had more than 90 percent fewer pests than the second orchard, which was in an open plain almost a mile away. Kaiser was stunned.

“You can’t get 90 percent reduction with chemical sprays,” he says. “And sprays kill everything—the pests and the beneficials.” (Beneficials are insects that don’t eat crops but instead help them grow. Bees, for example, help pollinate; others, like ladybugs and praying mantises, eat the insects that eat the crops.) Every farmer wants beneficials, but after spraying, the pests always come back faster and stronger than beneficials do. More sprays follow, and the death spiral widens. This process of destruction occurs whether the sprays are synthetic or organic.

In Costa Rica, Kaiser and his colleagues realized that the pest-free orchard escaped this fate for a simple reason: the beneficials were hanging out in the foliage bordering the orchard, which gave these insects an easy commute to manage the crops. At one point, Kaiser visited a banana plantation that had doubled its productivity simply by using the “supertree” Moringa oleifera to provide both shade and nitrogen, which is the most important nutrient to a plant.

In Kaiser’s mind, a pattern was emerging. “If you take care of Mother Nature first,” he says, “the food production is easy.”

In other trials in parts of Latin America, Miguel Altieri, a professor of agroecology at UC Berkeley, has reached much the same conclusion: in case after case, peasant farmers who used the natural resources on their own land to build up fertility earned higher profits, and often larger yields, than conventional farmers who used chemicals and other supplements of conventional agriculture. The newfound fertility through returning to old ways has been particularly dramatic in Cuba, as Craftsmanship Magazine reports in “Cuba’s Harvest of Surprises.”

In 2005, Kaiser returned to the U.S. to marry Elizabeth, raise a family and test what he had learned on his home turf. After nosing around for a few months, he finally found his target: Singing Frogs Farm, an eight-acre spread just outside Sebastopol. It was not the most obvious choice. The property had been neglected for years; it was cold and wet, on a slope that turned the farm into a neighborhood drainage sink, with no flat expanses for easy row cropping. In other words, Kaiser’s ideal piece of land. “I was looking for a place I could heal,” he says. “I knew I wanted to grow things, but I didn’t have any concept of what that meant.”

The Kaisers began farming the property using whatever tools they had inherited, plowing the ground like every other farmer does. Since the soil had gone uncultivated for years, simple weed growth had already banked the land with some pent-up fertility. So the farm quickly blossomed. But so did the labor. “The weeds were immense,” Kaiser says. “We were out there at night, with headlamps, weeding for hours!”

Then one spring morning, Kaiser saw a female killdeer, a local bird, screeching at his tractor. After a few more passes up and down the field, he realized she was protecting her eggs, which were nesting invisibly in the ground. When Kaiser stopped to inspect, he noticed all kinds of damage in the wake of his plow—cut-up worms and snakes, damaged beehives, valuable roots and bug colonies exposed to the hot sun. Some months later, after getting his thumb mangled in his tractor’s engine, he had an epiphany: “I am not doing this anymore!” he recalls thinking. “There has got to be a better way.”

After renewing his studies, Kaiser noticed a prodigious amount of literature extolling the virtues of “no-till” agriculture—in other words, farming without using machines such as a plow or spader to turn over the ground. The practice follows the second often-ignored rule of cultivation: disturb your soil as little as possible. Yet no-till farming had a surprisingly mixed record.

On the positive side, leaving old crops behind feeds the soil with a variety of crucial nutrients, as the plants decompose into rich compost; the roughage also minimizes water evaporation, erosion and the array of hidden damage that both cause. The federal government has been plenty blunt about this. In a 2010 report, the USDA said, “Tilling the soil is the equivalent of an earthquake, hurricane, tornado, and forest fire occurring simultaneously to the world of soil organisms.” Don Tyler, a USDA conservation specialist, has argued that one year of tillage can undo 25 years of an untilled farm’s soil improvement.

But no-till has its negative side, too: if fields aren’t managed with special care, no-till farming can lower productivity. It also tends to involve more pesticides and herbicides than tillage does, because the vegetation left behind has to be dealt with in some way. But spraying wasn’t an issue on Kaiser’s farm. To mimic what he’d learned overseas, he laced his farm with hedgerows of trees and shrubs favored by those “beneficial” insects. He also built his own greenhouses, so he could jump-start new plantings with seedlings that he let grow for four weeks instead of the standard two. His transplants allowed for constant harvests, even in winter.

To most farmers, a routine like this involves too much muddy trouble, and demands too much from their soil. Actually, they’ve got it backwards. The longer crops remain in the ground, the happier the dirt is—because all those Jules Verne creatures depend on plant roots for their food. This casts a new light on the myriad fields across the country that are disked and left fallow every winter. They aren’t resting; they’re dying.

As Jerry Hatfield, a crop physiologist with the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service, explained it to me recently, “You’re basically starving out your biological system if you are a farmer who lets a plowed field lie fallow. I always ask them, ‘How would you feel if I only fed you once a year?’” To Kaiser, this principle boils down to yet another simple lesson: “Keep roots in the ground at all times.”

Then Kaiser tried another experiment: instead of following the standard procedure of mixing a little fertilizer into his fields, he laid a thick layer of compost right on top. The choice had its risks. Compost is essentially nature’s version of a chef’s reduction: dense, rich, a potent blend of vegetation’s essences. It starts out as a bucket of discards—from our kitchens, from yard and tree trimmings and sometimes from nearby farmers’ manure piles.

To become usable, all these leavings have to thoroughly decompose; and once they do, they turn into something akin to concentrated dirt. Despite its liveliness, this material can be too much for young crops, burning their tender shoots with undiluted chemicals. With a little more reading, Kaiser discovered that he could neutralize his compost with calcium (from crushed oyster shells) and trace minerals (from rock powder). So he layered on the entire mess and planted straight through it.

Thanks to the nutrient balance in his new dirt, Kaiser’s seedlings, which were already robust, got an extra head start. “Our crops outcompete the weeds from the get-go,” he says. “So we just got rid of the weeding.” This high-intensity cycle—compost, transplant, harvest, repeat—has allowed Kaiser to produce up to seven crops of vegetables per acre every year. This is three to five times what most farms produce. What’s not to love about that?

One morning in July, two visitors arrived at Singing Frogs Farm from the Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems at UC Santa Cruz. One was Jim Leap, who for decades managed the center’s farm-and-garden program. Over the years, the UC garden, which created fertility on a rocky slope, became legendary, and so Leap had pretty much seen it all—until that morning.

As Leap and his colleague Darryl Wong strolled past Kaiser’s overflowing beds of vegetables, they seemed tickled by one innovation after another. Most farmers grow only a few varieties of vegetables. And some, including many who claim to follow “organic” or “sustainable” principles, concentrate on just one (lettuce being a common mainstay). This practice, called “mono-cropping,” is widely scorned. It exhausts the soil and narrows the variety of wildlife that would otherwise colonize a farm, creating a vacuum that stimulates pests.

By contrast, Kaiser aims for variety, in extremis. On a mere eight acres, he grows hundreds of native trees and shrubs. On the two and a half acres of this that he cultivates, he grows an equivalent variety of vegetables. These include broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, peppers, cucumbers, winter squash, lettuce and mustard greens—in about a half-dozen varieties apiece—plus 30 to 35 different kinds of tomatoes.

“There’s nobody else doing this,” Leap said, with a look of amazement.

One newly cultivated field was covered with a thick, felt-like blanket—Kaiser’s version of the miles of black plastic sheets you see during winter drives through Big Ag farmland. Those long sheets are called “plastic mulch,” and they are extremely effective—at suppressing weeds, holding in moisture and nurturing soil microbes. Every year, however, all that plastic gets trashed in landfills. Pointing to his blankets, Kaiser said, “These last me 10 years. When we roll them up in the spring”— here Kaiser suddenly broke into high-pitched song—“the soil underneath is gloooooorious!”

Could Big Ag’s mega-machinery handle blankets like these? “Sure,” Leap said. “If they can pick it up to landfill, they could pick it  up to reuse.”  Even the uncultivated pathways between the crop beds impressed Leap and Wong. On a typical farm, these are bare and hard; Kaiser’s were soft and green. “It’s so fun to see this working on a small scale,” Leap said, “because this is what everyone’s hoping to do.”

The farm’s abundance eventually led Leap to pester Kaiser with the issue that everyone raises: “I’m not sure if this is scale-uppable,” he said. Kaiser loves this question because it’s crucial, but he hates the way it’s always posed. “I used to think the best way to do this would be to have one large farm with a bunch of fields like this around a central hub,” Kaiser answered. “But my neighbor plants 44 acres, produces less than I do, sells at fewer farmers’ markets, and has fewer CSA [community-supported agriculture] members. So we don’t need to scale up. We need to have more small farms like this in urban cores, and fewer 100-acre farms 100 miles away from the people who eat the food.”

While most farm labor is part-time and seasonal, the work at Singing Frogs is full-time year-round. Labor costs in California are high, and Kaiser’s labor costs are higher still—acre for acre, he uses four to five times the number of employees that similar farms do. Kaiser also pays slightly higher wages than the local norm to match the higher level of skill that his system requires—to read soil conditions, adjust practices from bed to bed,and work quickly.

But he’s not paying for herbicides and pesticides, tons of fertilizer, heavy tractor use, constant fuel and machine maintenance or daily irrigation. So, he says, he still ends up well ahead of the game.

At one point during Leap’s tour, we all dug our hands into Kaiser’s soil. The dirt was richly aromatic but surprisingly lightweight. “It’s almost like potting mix,” Leap said as he ran it through his fingers. This was mostly because much of it was compost, which becomes somewhat fluffy as it dries. All this compost really scared Leap. “He’s using way beyond what’s common.”

Compost, it turns out, is a complicated creature. On one hand, its rich ingredients stimulate crop growth so effectively that one can’t help wondering why farmers don’t make greater use of it. “We just don’t have the carbon,” says Ray Archuleta of the USDA. Archuleta is mainly referring to the gap between current compost supplies and the 920 million acres (372 million hectares) currently planted with crops in this country. But he’s also calling compost “carbon” for provocative reasons. Carbon is bad, right? As it transforms into carbon dioxide, it’s the main cause of climate change. The same goes for nitrogen as it becomes nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas nearly 300 times as potent as carbon dioxide.

Well, carbon and nitrogen also are the primary ingredients in compost and, by extension, in the fertile elements of topsoil. So these chemicals are bad only if we put them in the wrong place—in our air, when they should be going back into the ground. As Kaiser puts it, “What do I need most as a farmer? Carbon for soil structure, and nitrogen for crop growth.”

On the other hand, compost has its ugly sides. Due to the world’s ceaseless pressure for more American crops, farmers everywhere have become addicted to nitrogen. And when fields contain too much nitrogen, it leaks into water supplies. At this point, Leap says, “every single aquifer under every agricultural operation in the state is polluted with nitrate.” Most nitrate poisoning comes from stormwater runoff from livestock feedlots, and from factory farms, which use abundant amounts of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers. Plenty comes from compost, however, which is typically loaded with nitrogen.

Strangely, some academic surveys have found that organic farmers, who love compost, tend to be among the worst nitrate polluters. And Leap fears that Kaiser might be a particularly prominent offender. Over the past few years, Kaiser has applied more than 60 tons of particularly high-nitrogen compost on each acre of his crops every year—five to ten times what is customary. Before each planting, he also supplements with a little organic fertilizer that contains extra doses of nitrogen, as well as phosphorus—yet another problematic nutrient.

“That’s unheard of,” Leap says. “That is a huge, huge, huge overapplication. If Paul wanted to be certified organic, that could really cause trouble.” Surprisingly, Kaiser’s farm is not certified organic—a stamp of approval that he resists, he says, because of its expense, its complications and its standards, which he finds superficial. Equally strangely, his customers don’t seem to mind; when polled, virtually all of them approved of Kaiser’s unconventional farming methods.

Kaiser argues that his circumstances are within bounds—for four reasons. First, he says the extra nitrogen is necessary because he’s farming so many more crops per acre than the average farm. Second, he says soil tests show that his nitrogen levels are “right where they should be for healthy crops.” Third, he says the crops are clearly not being overfed: on some, the leaves occasionally turn yellow, usually a sign of nitrogen deficiency. And fourth, he says his ponds, which catch the farm’s runoff, are visibly clear and full of wildlife. “All our fields and indicators show that our nitrogen levels are okay or not enough,” Kaiser says.

The problem is that, to some extent, both Kaiser and his critics are just guessing. Nitrogen and phosphorus are just two of the billions of ingredients, both elemental and alive, that create something called soil. Scientists have only recently begun to understand how this ecosystem affects fertility as its micro-inhabitants interact. Some of those interactions might excuse Kaiser’s excesses; others can make them worse. “We know less about the soil than we do about the moon, probably,” Morris says.

In the months since his visit, Jim Leap debated these questions—with himself, with Kaiser and with many of his organic-farming peers. The question that animated these exchanges was both basic and intractable. If Kaiser’s methodology is indeed flawed, is it fixable? “I’m just not sure he can produce at the level he’s doing now without these excesses,” Leap told me toward the end of our discussions. “I’m afraid it’s inextricable from his system. It’s kind of like his vegetables are pumped up on compost.”

Others are more optimistic. “Paul has probably developed enough soil to hold these excesses,” says Ray Ward, who runs a widely respected soil-testing laboratory in Nebraska. Ward’s endorsement does come with a warning, however. “He can’t keep building at this rate or eventually it’s going to spill out.”

On a frigid morning in January of 2014, I was sitting at a picnic table overlooking Singing Frogs’ fields while Kaiser and his wife, both huddling in fleece jackets, told me their story. The first signs of that year’s drought were already starting to appear, and I asked if they were worried.

“The crops will be fine,” Kaiser said with a shrug. “I’m worried about the trees.” Kaiser had faith in his crops’ fortitude, he said, because he doesn’t baby them with lots of sprays and fertilizers. This forces them to manufacture their own polyphenols—the core of a plant’s immune system. Plants, it seems, operate under the same axiom that humans do: Use it or lose it. “If you do all the defense for them,” Kaiser said, “they won’t defend themselves.”

Suddenly, Elizabeth called Kaiser’s attention to a little geyser of water spewing behind the barn—signs of a broken pipe. Kaiser groaned in frustration and trudged over to close a nearby connection. “I am really sick of these freezes,” he said as he returned to the conversation.

For the previous few weeks, the city of Sebastopol had endured temperature swings of more than 50 Fahrenheit degrees (28 Celsius degrees) every day, inspiring the local paper to describe the weather as desert conditions. “Two of the last five years, our last rainfall was February 1,” Kaiser said, “and it’s looking the same now.” The gaps left by low rainfall are filled each year by frosts—the first typically hits Kaiser’s property in late September, the last in late May.

“We get temperatures below 20 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 7 Celsius) at least four weeks a year,” Kaiser said. The reason is that Singing Frogs sits at the bottom of a shallow valley, which turns the air ten degrees colder, on average, than it is for their neighbors, who live just a few hundred yards uphill. That morning, Kaiser’s crops looked more discouraged than he was—many were wilted or dead. Ravenous whiteflies were buzzing everywhere.

When I called Kaiser months later, in the middle of spring, he was reenergized. Despite the drought, his harvests were abundant and profits were already higher than the previous year’s. This was partly because his competition had decreased—on many neighboring farms, crops had not survived the harsh, dry winter.

Meanwhile, Kaiser’s customers remained well fed. “At the farmers’ markets,” Kaiser said, “we’ve had people come up and say, ‘Is your cauliflower on crack?!’ ” 

Todd Oppenheimer is founding editor and publisher of Craftmanship Magazine, from which this was adapted (craftsmanship.net).

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