18 Questions with Bob Quinn

This month we are featuring one of our first eco-mavens, Bob Quinn about his life as a regenerative organic farmer, and now a first-time author!  Bob’s book Grain by Grain “A Quest to Revive Ancient Wheat, Rural Jobs, and Healthy Food” is not only getting rave reviews, but it’s a roadmap to fix the broken food system in America. The following is a culmination of conversations, quotes and excerpts from the book. We hope it gives you a glimpse into this extraordinary man, pioneer and true American hero. 

1. What inspired you to write Grain by Grain?

It began by wanting to document the history of Kamut® Wheat, how this ancient grain came into my Dad’s hands, how it changed our lives as farmers and the business model I eventually developed. As all the stories came together, a bigger picture emerged and I have my co-author Liz Carlisle to thank for her help in this. I had been working on various versions of the book and getting a bit bogged down. Liz already had an award inning book under her belt – Lentil Underground– and she introduced me to the publisher Island Press and here we are!

2. What do you think has changed since your first interview with us in 2011?

People are more informed about food, its effect on our health and they are asking questions about where their food comes from. They are increasingly concerned about chemicals and toxins in their food and they are demanding answers. They are also turning more and more to organically produced foods and are supporting their local farmers. This is a fundamental change that could reach a tipping point towards chemical free farming in a generation.  I am championing Chemical Free by ’43, but others believe it could happen sooner, as early as 2030. That would be an amazing achievement.

3. You started as a conventional farmer using chemicals and then you switched to organic, what was it like in the early days of organics? 

Not easy. Farmers were pitted against each other, both sides had very strong opinions on who was right.  But it wasn’t just people’s opinions, as the organic movement began to gain steam in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, agricultural chemical companies responded with vigorous attacks on the credibility of organic practices, as well as on individual organic researchers and advocates. These “information campaigns,” as the chemical industry called them, targeted nearly every major rural institution that farmers trusted: banks, ag publications, and the major farm organizations. One day in the early 1990’s, the ag lender at my local bank told me about a letter he had received from the area chemical rep. “If any of your customers are proposing to abandon the proven methods of modern agriculture for the high-risk niche of organic production,” the chemical rep had written to the banker, “we hope you will not support such a change by lending money to such an ill-conceived enterprise,” Luckily for me, my bankers had a little more faith in us as farmers and organic as a viable and sustainable way to farm.

4. How did chemical farming get such a strong hold on US farmers?

Chemical farming really took hold after WWII.Thegiant corporations played an increasing role in supplying chemical inputs to the farmers or controlling the commodity markets where most sell their grain.  Farmers were taught to look at their farms as factories and their production as commodities.  They were told to focus on feeding the plants and produce as high a yield as possible without counting the input costs or the net profits.  The multinational giants had no reason to own land or operate farms.  They were very content to let farmers do that and take all the risks while they extracted all the wealth they could from the farmers. They sell them inputs for as much as market will bear while other giants buy the harvest for as little as possible. All this is done with very little exposure of these giant non-farm corporations to all the hard work of farming as well as the risks of weather, insects, disease and weeds which plague farmers everywhere.  This extraction of wealth from the rural community reaches a crises stage when commodity prices are low and input cost for chemicals, fuel and machinery remain high. When the costs of inputs exceed the income from production, farmers begin the trek toward bankruptcy.   The large input giants could not care less about the havoc they are creating when they suck up not only the investments in growing crops but also the investments in the land when expenses exceed the income for the landowners.  Once that land investment is spent on chemicals, and that famer goes broke, they know that there will be another new farmer to take his place.  The new farmer will invest new capital into the farm which starts the cycle all over again.  

5. You often talk about the real cost of cheap food, could you elaborate?

The real cost of chemical agriculture is not the cost of the chemicals themselves, but the collapse of our farming economy, the high toll on our health – not to mention the land that is incapable of supporting any kind of agriculture.  And, unfortunately, government does not lead, it follows.  In recent years it has mostly followed the giant multinational companies which form the agricultural chemical industrial complex and big pharma.  These groups have successfully controlled the direction of research which ensures the future is going their way as well as established significant government subsidies which enable farmers to buy more chemicals and citizens everywhere to buy more pills despite the increasing cost of each.  There is now an unholy alliance which allows these giant companies great influence on the government no matter which party is in control.  They influence the whole country with the rallying cry for cheap and plentiful food and federal health care programs.  They claim their system is the only one that will feed the world.   And they have been very successful at least as far as cheap food goes.  Since 1941 the cost of food has dropped 61%.   However, instead of enjoying that financial benefit, most of the savings was eaten up by the cost of health care  which increased 61% over the same  period. This great increase in health care is one of the high costs we are all paying for cheap food.

6. There’s a lot of buzz round regenerative agriculture, what are your thoughts?

A lot of folks are talking about “regenerative agriculture” and proposing this concept as a new benchmark of sustainability. I’m glad this idea is being widely circulated, as I think it’s a good reminder of the principle I have believed for many years, which is at the heart of organic.  But we can’t just settle for substituting one set of chemical inputs with a less toxic set of organic inputs, we actually have to design self-regenerating farm systems –which also regenerate the planet and rural communities. No farming system should call itself regenerative if it relies on polluting chemicals. In my mind, organic is not complete without being regenerative and regenerative agriculture is not complete without being organic.

7. Community seems to be very important to you, why is that?

It is, I believe that we are a community, and when we act like a community, then we’ll prosper as a community. Vertically integrating my business in Big Sandy was a very conscious decision, because every job we create really matters. This is rural America where the poverty rate is nearly four percentage points higher than urban areas. The key to breaking the cycle of decline and despair, I believe, is to make sure everyone has the opportunity to work a stable, meaningful, well-paying job. I’m proud to have created a few such opportunities. You can read more about this inGrain by GrainChapter 12: Bringing Rural Jobs Back.

8. Many people are critical of the Millennial generation, but you seem to have a different viewpoint, can you explain why?

Well lucky for America, the biggest chunk of the US workforce—Millennials—are asking more questions about where their food comes from. Seventy five percent of them are willing to pay extra for sustainable goods, including food, which is already driving major changes in the industry. We may be seeing the end of an era of “fast, convenient, and cheap.” What is even more encouraging, is that this generation is not just interested in where their food comes from, they are becoming farmers to ensure that the food they produce is focused on quality and not volume. They are not just returning to family farms, but creating new enterprises, like beekeeping for local honey and planting vineyards for local wine – small farms within a larger one! Innovative, ingenious and just the kind of creative thinking we need to change our broken food system. My generation has made some inroads, but they are going to be the tipping point.

9.  You originally set out to become a research scientist, was there an Ah Ha moment that took you back to farming?

There were several. I studied at UC Davis and their biochemistry department was ranked among the top 10 in the country, and they wanted to be in the top five! It was an incredibly competitive environment which I did not find conducive to furthering knowledge. But despite that I did complete my PhD in 1976 and was encouraged to explore opportunities in the agricultural industry. One of my classmates went to work for a large chemical company that was expanding its work in biotechnology­ – that company was Monsanto and it was rapidly escalating the green revolution into a gene revolution. What at first seemed an intriguing and interesting idea and a natural extension of plant science, eventually turned into a giant corporate control mechanism. In the early days of experimentation with GMO’s they were trying to take a protein from an artic fish and put it into plants to reduce their susceptibility to frost. What none of us foresaw was what the introduction of GMO crops would mean to farmers who no longer had control of replanting their own seeds. But it was another experience that had me questioning the so-called modern trajectory of American agriculture. It was a fateful trip to the Central Valley peach farm that transformed the entire course of my career. When my professor and the peach farmer started laughing about the way these peaches were “ripened” using a petroleum-based spray developed by the professor to change their color artificially I was horrified. When I was a kid if peaches looked good, they tasted good! Not only were these two unscrupulous profiteers denying us all the wonderful taste of ripe peaches, they also had made sure that their “discovery” was buried in an obscure overseas scientific journal to avoid public scrutiny. That trip brought home to me that the agriculture I was being trained in was undermining human values. Any remaining ambition I had to become a research scientist died that day. It was several years later that I finally decided to make the farm my research laboratory. 

10.  You developed a very interesting business model with Kamut® Wheat, what made you do it differently?

Well, I’ve never been one to follow the crowd. I knew I wanted to bring the amazing benefits of Kamut® Wheat to the world but had neither the management resources nor the financial backing to build a traditional corporate model. To be perfectly honest that didn’t really appeal to me. I wanted to spend my time helping farmers, spreading the word about organic agriculture, making my farm fully sustainable and researching why people could tolerate Kamut® ancient wheat and not modern wheat. Sharing is a foreign idea to big agribusiness which is all about trade secrets. Their idea of success is developing a valuable product and then controlling it as tightly as possible. I think the more rewarding approach is to share it. In the case of Kamut® I came to realize that by sharing it as widely as possible could help solve some financial troubles for farmers and some serious environmental problems on thousands of acres of farmland. Rather than trying to control everything myself, I recruited a network of partners to help me—a network that now numbers in the thousands. It was the smartest decision I ever made. 

11. It seems that you have always been an eco-advocate, is that so?

Well, when you grow up on a farm you are about as close to nature and the environment as you can get. But we never thought of it as being green or eco, it was just part of life and how we lived. On our family wheat and cattle ranch in North Central Montana, we raised all of our own chickens, milked our own cows and even made our own ice cream. We had our own beef and hogs that we butchered so we ate our own bacon and eggs. Also, we had a big garden that we ate out of all summer and used to do some canning and freezing of vegetables and fruits for the winter months. So, it was eating what we raised and raising what we ate. Basically, the proverbial “Farm to Table”!

12. So,  what do you like to eat?

I have a large vegetable garden and a small orchard on the farm, so anything freshly picked right out of the garden or off the tree. A big tossed salad and fresh steamed or roasted medley of vegetables and spices. I have some of my favorite recipes on my blog www.bobquinnorganicfarmer.com

13. Where on the “green scale” do you fall?

I remember saying 8.5 in my first interview, but I do believe we have taken it up a notch. Recycling energy has made a major impact on our local environment. Running the farm on diesel didn’t sit well with me. The most obvious way for me to source alternative fuel was to source my own. That’s why after much trial and error, I can report that our safflower project is going well. As well as pressing into oil, renting it to restaurants and then picking it up and using it to fuel my tractors on the farm, we now bottle it for sale. And as we use the fuel on the farm, this eliminates the bio-fuel debate of fuel verses fuel. We also launched a Kacklin’ Kamut® project, we make a delicious, healthy organic snack from the Kamut® wheat berries, fried in the high-oleic Safflower Oil. These projects come out of a new venture The Oil Barn and while still modest it holds a lot of promise. In addition to fuel value and food value we have added feed value. Because we extract the oil using cold press at low temperatures and do not use hexane to get every last drop of oil from the seed, we end up with a mash by-product that is nontoxic and at 21% protein is a good supplementary feed for dairy cows.

So, I would put us at 9 on the green scale and aiming for 10!

14. Who are your heroes?

George Washington Abraham Lincoln or Thomas Jefferson—those are my American heroes. Thomas Jefferson and George Washington were both pioneers in agriculture in their time and also as fathers of the country. 

15. What would you say to the leaders of our country?

There are a lot of issues at home and the world. Whether we like it or not, we are part of a global economy so we are not isolated from the world’s problems. There are two issues, which I see as quite serious which we could address here at home and be a great example of positive leadership around the world.  Those two are mediating climate change and reconnection food and health.  The challenge we face is not to take either of these two issues seriously.  Climate change could soon begin to affect our ability to grow enough food to feed the world.  While our drive to produce abundant cheap food has produced a nation that is generally well fed but not very well nourished.  If chronic disease continues to progress at its current rate we will not be able to afford to care for the ill as a nation and if climate chance continues unabated we will not be able to feed ourselves.

16. You have the chance to send one tweet to all the tweeps in the world, what would it be?

Medicine should be your food and food should be your medicine.

17. You will be finishing your book tour in March 2020, then what?

In total, 2020 will be a big year for me.  I will finish my book tour and our ranch will celebrate its 100 year anniversary since it was started by my grandfather, Emmet Quinn.   I hope to construct a subterranean green house in order to expand my goal of growing all my own food and I expect to continue my experiments to improve regenerative organic production of food of all types on the Northern Great Plains.  

18. What do you want your legacy to be?

Innovative and honest in business. Kind and helpful to those in need. And a resource and inspiration to those trying to realize their own dreams.

Link to buy Grain by Grain

Sue Taggart

As a child growing up in Kent “The Garden of England”, I thought that every family grew their own vegetables. I would help my grandfather in the garden and loved pulling potatoes and carrots out of the soil. These early experiences have given me a great appreciation for where our food comes from and a discerning palette for fresh, seasonal produce. As an avid reader, writing and storytelling is a passion that has only deepened over the years together with a growing concern for the health of our oceans and planet. We are facing serious issues with climate change and the clock is ticking…so it’s up to all of us to nurture and protect our home planet.