Interview with Rick Knoll of Knoll Farm

Rick and Kristie Knoll bought a ten-acre farm in Brentwood, CA back in 1979, and have been using their “Tairwa’” approach to everything they farm, including the farm ecosystem itself, ever since. Biodynamic before organic was even cool, these trailblazers out in California grow your incredible green garlic, fava leaves, pea greens, stinging nettles, wild mustard greens, and cardoons. These are coming to us straight from the farm, right after being from the field, very carefully packed, and shipped overnight to us the next day.  Often, these veggies are less than 48 hours out of the ground when you’re getting and serving them.  

We interviewed Rick Knoll to find out more about their practices, what motivates them to do this work, and ask Rick about his hopes for the future of farming.

From their website: It’s not surprising that Rick has a strong interest in biodynamic farming.  He holds a Ph.D. in Organic Chemistry from UC Irvine. Much of what he studied in the early 1970’s laid the foundation for his interest in growing food without chemicals. After working for 6 years as an aerospace-industry chemist, Rick began to turn full time to organic farming, first by studying agroecology at UC Santa Cruz for 3 years, then becoming a full-time farmer.

Specialty Foods Boston: What made you decide to go into farming? What do you want people to know about why you use the farming practices you do?

Rick Knoll: I was recently out of the Navy and found myself getting sick all the time. I had strep throat four times in one year, and just wasn’t getting better. At the same time, I was in graduate school, studying organic chemistry, specifically, how it relates to plants. We were learning that all plants had ways to defend themselves against other plants, animals and threats in their environment. At that time, it was considered anthropomorphic to say that plants have immune systems, but essentially they do. Most drugs found in the medicines that we use originated from plants. In fact, most medicines are basically a manufactured emulation of the chemicals in plants that affect our health.

What I was finding out, in trying to get healthier, was that food was full of antibiotics, hormones and pesticides. It still is, but now it’s also genetically modified. It’s becoming food our bodies can’t recognize anymore; it’s a toxic invasion of our bodies.

You can’t grow anything with blemishes in this country.
Yet blemishes can be an indicator of health in a plant.

There are people who say that organic and non-organic foods aren’t all that different, because the nutrient levels in both are similar. But what’s not taken into account are all the beneficial microorganisms that live in and on our food when it’s grown naturally and not treated with pesticides. We NEED these microorganisms for a healthy immune system and brain function and, therefore, our health and intelligence. Now I’m providing with the food I grow, enhanced immune function to maintain a healthy body. That’s important to me and farmers like me.

SFB: What else do you wish people realized about your produce, vs. the commercial/commodity/mass- or factory-produced version of your product that they may not?

RK: How hard it is to grow a perfect-looking piece of fruit. You can’t grow anything with blemishes in this country. Yet blemishes can be an indicator of health in a plant. A peach with a small blemish may be one that survived a particular peach disease, rather than something grown in a sterile environment that has no resistance. The peach variety that survived is a healthier peach for us and for the environment.

SFB: What are your hopes for the future of farming?

RK: An end to genetic engineering, pesticides, herbicides, and to learn how to grow food ecologically. The more love you put into it, the more you get out of it. These non-ecological technologies are perverse to our health. You can’t expect to genetically engineer foods that have never been seen before, have never been grown before, and expect your body to just deal with it. I think that it’s the root cause of a lot of disease today.

I’d also like to see more young farmers. I don’t see that many; and I think it’s because it’s hard work to grow food. I’ve seen kids come and say they want to farm, but they just don’t want to work that hard. They’d rather be on their iPad. Typing on your iPad is the opposite of farming.

SFB: What is the most satisfying part of what you do?

RK: When we’re at the farmer’s market, and I see a young mother with a child come by–and the kid grabs a piece of fruit and shoves it in his mouth. And the mother yells at him and says “you don’t like that!!” but he does, and eats it anyway.

I love seeing someone bite into one of my peaches or plums and end up with the juice running down their hands and chin. Then their face lights up with a smile as their body recognizes REAL food!! That makes my day!

Rick’s wife and partner Kristie Knoll is a total badass too. Check her out in this article from the SF Gate, where she talks about why they decided not to use the word organic: “”I felt like the feds were going to be lowering the bar,” says Kristie Knoll, 57, a petite, voluble woman with close-cropped hair. “That blew me away. You don’t ever lower the bar. That’s not how you achieve greatness.”

All we can say is…oui, Chef.


By Diego Maldonado