Perspective from a grain farmer-scientist

In an introductory letter to GRAIN BY GRAIN: A Quest to Revive American Wheat, Rural Jobs, and Healthy Food, Jaime Jennings writes, “You hold in your hands the story of an unsung hero. Bob Quinn is a straight-shooting, small-town farmer who turned his family farm into an organic multimillion dollar heirloom grain company.”

President and Founder of Organic Trade Association member Kamut International, Quinn, who co-authored the book with Liz Carlisle, shares his practical wisdom from a lifetime of farming--and scientific discovery.

“As an entrepreneur and scientist working in the midst of rural American poverty, I have seen firsthand how putting food and other fundamental goods like energy at the center of a value-added economy can foster health, economic opportunity, and ecological regeneration, particularly in some of our country’s poorest communities. The truth is, cheap stuff isn’t really cheap--the bill just comes due somewhere downstream or down the line. Likewise, adding value isn’t expensive--it’s actually a remarkably efficient way to reduce the soaring costs of health care, poverty, and environmental degradation, all of which are putting a strain on our national budget. Adding value to our food means we can regenerate land instead of destroying it. We can revitalize rural communities instead of giving up on them. We can heal people instead of making them sick.”

Along his journey, he has been a powerful force, developing a thriving organic operation reviving an ancient wheat and becoming a role model for other farmers and business folks to go organic. That choice, for him, has been pivotal.

“Going organic taught me many lessons that have served me well in business: tackle problems at their root, work with nature rather than against it, and don’t dump so much capital into gross gains that you end up with net losses. What began as a simple attempt to serve a customer became an eye-opening realization: using organic methods, we could add back so much value to the 52 percent of U.S. land that is in agriculture. Managed correctly, farms not only can be more profitable but also can produce more nutritious food and sustain healthy soils--while storing atmospheric carbon, maintaining healthy watersheds, and providing critical habitat for pollinators. In the era of climate change, we need to think more and more about how to add this kind of ecological value to everything we do in business. We don’t have a planet B.”

He explains, “I measure the success of my business by the degree to which it’s added economic, ecological, and nutritional value all along the supply chain: For the hundreds of independent owner-operators who now farm Kamut® grain on thousands of acres of certified organic cropland. For the over 3,500 artisans who make it into pasta, cereal, bread, or another food. My job is to make sure everyone in the network gets a fair price and has the opportunity to succeed--they, in turn, ensure the integrity of the product.”

Quinn calls himself a “free-range researcher” trying to advance an integrated understanding of food and agriculture. Part of this has been to help fund nutritional studies in Italy and run test plots on his own farm in chilly, semi-arid Big Sandy, Montana. Quinn says that in a year or two, all of the research activities on his farm will be organized into a 600-acre organic research center affiliated with the Rodale Institute in Pennsylvania.

He believes that an increasingly important topic for that research center--and others--will be the challenges posed by climate change.

“Adapting to climate change isn’t just about selecting more cold-tolerant or drought-tolerant varieties. It’s definitely not just about buying more crop insurance...We need to make more fundamental changes in the way we farm, and one of the most critical is a dramatic increase in biodiversity.” He adds, “In the era of climate change, I think we need to rethink our definition of an agricultural success story. It’s not about being the biggest and the best. It’s about resilience.”

His book was scheduled to be available for purchase by early March. //

This article was written by the Organic Trade Association’s Senior Writer/Editor Barbara Haumann (bhaumann@ota.com).