How a Grain and Legume Farmer Harvests Nutrition from the Soil

Larry Kandarian grows legumes alongside ancient grains on his California farm, producing a polyculture that benefits both the health of the land and his own.



Editor’s note: This month, we begin profiling farmers from across the country we think deserve attention. If you know of a farmer who should be part of our monthly series, please let us know.

“I’m 72, but I consider myself middle-aged,” said Larry Kandarian of Kandarian Organic Farms as he smiled and took a sip of his stew. Sitting in his trailer with a sun-weathered tan, Kandarian looks like any other farmer in the state.

And for a while, he was.

In the 1970s, Kandarian started off as a conventional farmer specializing in flowers and California native plants on his farm in Los Osos, about 100 miles northwest of Santa Barbara on California’s central coast. He decided to pivot full-time to growing organic, ancient grains eight years ago after the recession shrank the market for his goods.

“I figured that people still have to eat grains,” he said of the shift.

But what sets him apart now is his approach to growing food. Instead of deeply plowing the land and mixing in sheets of fertilizers to ensure high yields like most farmers in America, Kandarian employs a minimal-tillage system and uses absolutely no fertilizers or compost.

For fertility, Kandarian takes advantage of the nitrogen-fixing properties of plants in the legume family like clover, beans, and sweet pea. He sows legume seeds in the ground after the grain is harvested, leaving the chaff of the grains still on the field. The chaff decomposes and fertilizes the legume crop. The legume crop, as it grows, fixes nitrogen into the soil.

Larry Kandarian in the field. (Photo © Clarissa Wei)

The bacterium that grows on their roots takes gaseous nitrogen from the air and puts it into the soil, making it available to plants. This preps the soil for the next crop of grains, eliminating the use of synthetic fertilizer and creating a closed-loop system. While this methodology isn’t common among most U.S. grain farmers, it can be found in countries like Japan where it’s referred to as “natural farming.”

Kandarian is not dependent on hauling and mixing into his land loads of external fertilizers; the nitrogen-fixing plants do the work of feeding the soil for him. And most importantly, it means that the soil structure is undisturbed, which ensures long-term soil vitality. At the end of the season, he harvests the legumes as well.

Intensive tillage can be extremely harmful to farmland. In fact, it was the primary cause of the Dust Bowl, the period of dust storms in the 1930s during which once-fertile American prairie turned into a dry, eroded wasteland. Over-tilling land releases carbon dioxide, a major source of greenhouse gas into the atmosphere by breaking up carbon-rich organic matter in the soil. Despite the negative effects of plowing, world-wide, less than 7 percent of farmers use no-till methods like Kandarian’s.

What may sound like a slight difference in methodology actually makes a significant difference for the overall vitality of his estate, Kandarian explained, noting, “We never deplete the soil here and recycle everything back into the ground.”

Kandarian’s Longevity Stew

With his unconventional methodologies, Kandarian produces up to 30 varieties of grains that total up to roughly 50,000 pounds a year. He grows einkorn, quinoa, teff, White Sonora wheat, buckwheat, black barley, emmer farro, and amaranth, among other grain crops, selling them to restaurants, health food stores, bakeries, and customers who buy through his website or at local farmers’ markets.

Kandarian holding Ethiopian blue-tinged farro. (Photo © Clarissa Wei)

Kandarian holding Ethiopian blue-tinged farro. (Photo © Clarissa Wei)

Many of these grains have deep roots in human history: Einkorn, Kandarian pointed out, is the oldest grain in history and was responsible for shepherding humans into a sedentary lifestyle. Amaranth was a staple food of the Aztecs, White Sonora is one of the oldest surviving wheat varieties in North America, and emmer is one of the oldest in East Asia.

But the grains aren’t just cool relics; they’re incredibly nutrient-dense grains and higher in Omega-3s compared to conventional strains. Teff, for example, is packed with iron and has long been a staple for Ethiopia’s long-distance runners. Black barley is rich in azelaic acid, which is great for improving complexions.

The level of biodiversity and incongruity on Kandarian’s 200-acre plot of land (of which 130 acres are farmed) means that there are very few pests. When weeds do pop up—many of which are edible like fennel and lamb’s quarters—he simply finds a use for them.

In fact, this potpourri of grains and legumes and weeds growing on his land has inspired his daily soup, which he calls Longevity Stew. (Kandarian also provided Civil Eats with his Longevity Stew recipe.) The ingredients are sold individually, depending on the season.

In Kandarian’s trailer, there are two pots visible on the burner: at the front end is a shiny turquoise one full of said stew, and in the corner—an old empty one, burnt and with crusted gunk hanging on the edges. The latter, slightly rusted, is also incredibly battered.

“I made a new batch today because I knew you were coming,” Kandarian said sheepishly, directing my attention to the new pot. When he’s not expecting guests, he’ll keep the master stock around for six months at a time without washing or changing out the pot.

Kandarian’s six-month stew. (Photo © Clarissa Wei)

Kandarian explained more about the contents of the soup, a balanced array of grains, plants, legumes, and spices incorporated into bone broth. In addition to his assortment of ancient grains, there’s silky sea palm from his friend, cactus and huauzontle from the Mexican market, rice, lentils, and beans that he grows on his farm—most of which are varieties that have been around for thousands of years. On the leguminous side, the soup contains adzuki, black eye peas, black turtle beans, fava beans, favitas, and garbanzos. All of them are harvested from the same land as his grains, a by-product of his no-till methods.

“Most of these ingredients are superfoods. I’ve noticed a big difference since I’ve started eating them regularly,” he said, referencing what he calls a noticeable improvement in his health.

In a way, Kandarian’s soup is a reflection of how his farm is designed. In both Kandarian’s kitchen and on his farm, he mixes everything together to produce a richer result. On the stove, he throws beans in with grains to add protein and balance out the nutritional content. On the land, legumes provide the soil with nutrition and work as a cover crop to ensure that the land is never bare. And stew and land alike are left as undisturbed as possible.

Growing a Polyculture

Nurturing the soil is the crux of Kandarian’s farming philosophy, and he believes it should be a top-priority for all farmers. Estimates say that if soil degradation worldwide continues at modern rates, all of the world’s top soil could be lost in 60 years.

A full-time farmer, Kandarian is also an activist by way of his research. Currently, he’s helping investigators at The Land Institute with Kernza, a perennial wheatgrass. He had found a variety of it growing wildly while wandering his neighborhood and for the last 18 years has been growing an unadulterated strain of the grain on his land. “The field has never been tilled,” he said. “Our end use for this seed from the Kernza field is currently bakeries and liquor makers.”

Unlike annual and biannual crops, perennials have a lifespan of more than two years and don’t have be sowed every single year. This can be revolutionary for the grain industry, as it would improve soil structure and completely eliminate any need to till, he said. Currently, Kandarian has 20 varieties of perennials on his land, including sorghum and Job’s tears.

Still, Kandarian doesn’t necessarily see perennial grains as a fix-all. Multiplicity, he stressed, is vital to sustainability and is the common thread between his farming and his cooking.

“If you do diversity, you don’t have to do all that craziness,” he said, referring to the strenuous work that goes into incorporating fertilizers and pesticides. He ladled himself another bowl of stew—a motley of over 25 ingredients in just one scoop. “Grow a polyculture,” he said, “not a monoculture.”

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

View Comments

  1. Tuesday, January 9th, 2018
    Great article on one of my local farmers!
  2. Tuesday, January 9th, 2018
    Great article, Clarissa! I clearly see the connection between what Mr. Kandarian is doing and what Masanobu Fukuoka did in Japan.
  3. Sharon Rose
    Tuesday, January 9th, 2018
    This is so exciting! I'm happy to hear this and happy the word's getting out. I would like to visit this fatm. My uncle had a farm in Wisconsin, where I stayed in summers as a kid. He grew green fertilizers and left them in the ground. One year, he was excited to get his first corporate contract. He said: "We're going to be rich!" Then he learned he had to use petrochemical chemical fertilizers--, so he turned down the deal. He didn't get rich, but they always had food, a happy family and he was esteemed in his community. And, he had an organic farm before any of us knew the word organic!
  4. Eric Bjerregaard
    Wednesday, January 10th, 2018
    Larry is mining his soils. Sooner or later he or the guy after him will have to add in the minerals removed from his soils when food is sold off the farm.
    • Justin West
      Saturday, January 27th, 2018
      This issue is discussed often in regenerative agriculture circles. Unless we can close all loops, it will be an issue. The obvious solution is for everyone to grow their own food, recycle their own wastes, then let their bodies decompose back on their land at the end of life. It seems like that will be a hard sell in modern society. Do you have any ideas on a more socially acceptable way to address the issue?
  5. Friday, January 12th, 2018
    This awareness is profoundly hopeful...
    I am always grateful for evolved ways
    Of approaching life..Thank you , Mr.
    Kandarien.!!!!!!!
  6. Jazz
    Monday, January 15th, 2018
    Omg ...amazing ... congratulations
  7. Bob
    Saturday, January 20th, 2018
    Does kardarian rotate crops or just let the seeds drop in same plot?
    Does he use conventional harvesting methods?
  8. Donald Humphrey
    Sunday, January 28th, 2018
    This article is amazing and very informational. Looking forward to more. (Perfect because we are studying this in Mr Beckwith's class)
  9. Masood Ahmad Shakir
    Monday, January 29th, 2018
    Growing legumes and cerels in a rotation is sustaimable for soil, environment and the end user. It must be proted world-wide. Sunyhetic nitrogenous fertilizers are thretnimg soil, water bodies, air and humean being.
  10. Wednesday, January 31st, 2018
    Nice to see such a promotion of organic farming in the US.
  11. Hector Guerrero
    Thursday, February 15th, 2018
    I am interested on learning more...so far i been capable to eliminate the chemical use in our farm ...vermicompost teas ...vermicasting teas ...i am interested in learning more ..of practises of other farmers
  12. Kelly Taylor
    Friday, March 23rd, 2018
    Your message is most interesting
    We to are now somewhat retired and now doing organic gardening on our new Community being developed in Utah Canyonlands isolated remoteness.
    Our new Community of 'Wild n Free' is a
    500 acre virgin soil organic gardening natural nature's Refuge for people seeking a simpler lifestyle...
  13. Sunday, March 25th, 2018
    All very interesting. I stay in South Africa. Not a farmer, very interested in healthy foods. Looks delicious.
    Regards
    Dawn Shrock
  14. Patti russell
    Wednesday, April 11th, 2018
    Love this article please keep us apprised on all of those farmers Ways,I would love to have his recipe and does he except apprentices to follow him around on his farm and learn now that he knows thank you
    • Patti russell
      Wednesday, April 11th, 2018
      I would love more information