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.
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.
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 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.”