Quinn Farm and Ranch
Big Sandy, Montana
Summary of Operation
• Organically grown wheat,
including khorasan, durum, hard red winter and
soft white, and buckwheat on 4,000 acres
• Barley, flax, lentils,
alfalfa (for hay and green manure) and peas (for
• Processing and direct-marketing
of organic grain
Low commodity prices. When
Bob Quinn took over the fourth-generation, 2,400-acre
family farm near Big Sandy, Mont., in 1978, it
was a conventional grain and cattle operation.
Unstable commodity prices meant he would have
to look for something different if he wanted to
The New American Farmer: Profiles of Agricultural
By the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education
© 2003, Beltsville MD. Used by permission.
Pp. 146 to 148
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Armed with enthusiasm
and a Ph.D. in plant biochemistry from the University of California-Davis,
Quinn began overhauling the family ranch. First, he established
a wheat buying/brokering company in 1983 to increase his earnings
through direct marketing. With a partner in California, Quinn
began marketing the farm’s high-quality, high-protein
wheat to whole grain bakeries. When the demand was greater than
what they could supply, Quinn began buying and marketing wheat
from his neighbors.
Proves Change is Good: Bob Quinn’s
five-year rotation disrupts insect, disease and
weed cycles and builds soil quality – while
producing a high-quality crop.
As Quinn became more deeply involved in the grain aspect of
his business, he decided to sell his cattle and rent out the
700 acres of pastureland. In 1985, Quinn built a flour mill
50 miles from the farm. He added a cleaning plant in 1992 to
maintain complete control of quality and the timing of deliveries
“I started getting requests at my flour mill for organic
grain, and I became interested in finding out if organic production
methods would work in north central Montana,” Quinn recalls.
“I was always interested in growing my own fertilizer
and reducing inputs such as herbicides and fertilizers.”
In fall 1986, he plowed down 20 acres of alfalfa that had been
free of chemical application for three years and planted organic
winter wheat. The organic field was planted using seven-inch
drill spacing instead of the usual 14-inch spacing. The wheat
grew thicker and shaded the ground, forming a canopy that inhibited
To see whether the alfalfa had fixed enough nitrogen for the
winter wheat, Quinn tested the nitrogen level in the field.
Then he planted an adjacent 20-acre field with conventional
winter wheat and applied the same amount of nitrogen —
using urea — to the new field as he had found in the alfalfa
The resulting crops were nearly identical in yield, 35 and 36
bushels, and levels of protein, 15.2 and 16.4. The positive
results encouraged Quinn to move forward with alfalfa as a nitrogen
source in an organic system. Within three years he had converted
the whole farm to organic production and by 1993, he was totally
Focal Point of Operation —
Producing and marketing organic
Quinn’s rotational plan begins and ends with soil-building.
He actually bases his cash crop choice on the level of nitrogen
in that season’s soil test.
“Here on the northern Great Plains, the fields are
so big that it is impossible to spread compost or manures,”
Instead, Quinn uses green manure, and lots of it. He has experimented
with clovers, medics, peas and alfalfa, with alfalfa proving
the most consistent protein producer — and therefore
the most marketable hay. Quinn uses a flexible five-year rotation,
which offers him the ability to cut short the rotation and
go back to alfalfa when needed to eliminate weeds or improve
the soil. His land is roughly divided into five sections with
a new rotation beginning each year.
Typically, Quinn plows down alfalfa and plants winter wheat
on half the ground. The other half is planted the next spring
with Egyptian khorasan wheat. In the second year of the rotation,
Quinn tests the level of nitrogen to determine the next crop.
If nitrogen is still very high, he plants spring wheat. If
the nitrogen is intermediate, he plants durum wheat, and if
the nitrogen is extremely low, he plants soft white wheat,
barley or buckwheat. He often seeds lentils after winter wheat.
The third year, he plants buckwheat, barley or soft white
wheat under-seeded with alfalfa. Alfalfa hay is harvested
in the fourth year, and in the fifth year the alfalfa is worked
into the soil for green manure. Quinn has multiple needs for
alafalfa — diversifying his rotation, growing seed and
harvesting hay — but his primary aim is to fix nitrogen.
The rotation and other organic production practices require
a lot more management than most conventional farms. In addition
to monitoring the fields to determine which crops should be
planted for optimum yield, he needs to identify problems far
in advance. He regularly scouts the fields, looking for insects,
disease and winter annual or perennial weeds — each
of which he manages differently.
While rotations are critical to disrupt pests, disease and
annual weed cycles, Quinn controls perennial weeds primarily
with tillage, and he cultivates a few small patches occasionally
with a small tractor. Those efforts seem to pay off. Quinn
says weeds, insects and disease problems are generally less
problematic than those faced by his neighbors who use purchased
“There are some really troublesome weeds that have almost
disappeared for us,” he says. “We still have some
weeds, but they’re manageable. They’re not destroying
large sections of the crop. And that was a big surprise when
we first started out.”
Organic production requires other laborious tasks. Quinn needs
to clean the combines between each crop and scour his harvest
bins frequently because he grows such a variety of crops and
needs to separate them to meet customer needs.
“You have to clean between each crop because the customers
are very fussy about purity,” he says. “We have
many more crops than what are normally grown, so that takes
a lot more time.”
All of the grain is sold through Montana Flour and Grain Mill.
Two-thirds of the farm’s production goes to Europe,
including most of the khorasan wheat (marketed under the brand
name of Kamut), all of the buckwheat and lentils, and some
of the red winter and spring wheat. Quinn travels annually
to two food shows in North America and two in Europe to promote
the Kamut brand wheat and the Montana Flour and Grain Mill.
He also makes personal visits to his biggest customers.
Economics and Profitability
Quinn receives premium prices, which average about 50 percent
more than conventional prices, for his grain. Even with the
organic certification, however, Quinn needs to raise top-quality
products to receive the premium price. Premium prices are
only part of the financial benefits.
“Just in the last 10 years, we haven’t had to
have an operating note on our farm,” he says, referring
to typical beginning-of-the-season farm loans. “And
that’s an enormous savings.”
Quinn doubts he would run a conventional operation without
seasonal loans because of the enormous input costs each spring,
which would later have to be paid off with the sale of the
crop in the fall. “We’ve tried to reduce the cost
and amount of input on our farm and increase the value of
the output,” Quinn says, “so the bottom line is
During the 1990s, he added a full-time partner and 1,600 new
acres to the farm.
Quinn’s well-managed rotation disrupts insect, disease
and weed cycles and builds soil quality — while producing
a high-quality organic crop.
Quinn focuses on feeding and increasing the nutritional value
of the soil rather than the conventional approach of feeding
the plants. He addresses the root causes of disease and plant
problems, rather than waiting and treating the symptoms that
show up in the fields. Quinn believes his efforts reap an
environmental benefit, resulting in more fertile soil with
less water and wind erosion, as well as a financial benefit.
“After four or five years, both water and wind erosion
have declined and the quality of the soil has improved,”
Quinn’s focus on soil improvement both protects a fragile
resource and provides the basis for his impressive farm output,
he says. Most of the reason behind the prolific use of fertilizers
in conventional operations, he says, is because early farmers
“wore out” the soil, moved west, then hit the
Pacific and had nowhere else to go.
“I don’t look at organic farming as a return to
old methods before chemical use, because a lot of the old
methods weren’t sustainable either,” Quinn says.
“What we’re really trying to do is focus on understanding
the whole system and have a rotation that provides weed and
pest management and quality crop production.”
Community and Quality of Life Benefits
“Organic farming has certainly been more fun and more
profitable than conventional farming,” says Quinn. “It’s
made me a better farmer because I’m forced to really
study and learn what’s going on with my fields, my crops,
and weeds and diseases.”
Quinn also enjoys the marketing end of the business. His unusual
Kamut wheat crop takes him to myriad food shows in Germany,
Italy, France and Belgium. In North America, he travels throughout
the entire United States and several provinces in Canada.
“I’ve had to learn about the different qualities
of wheat, what all the wheat varieties are used for and how
to help my customers solve their problems,” he says.
Quinn encourages farmers currently using conventional methods
of crop management to consider moving to an organic system.
He suggests a gradual conversion, starting out with about
10 to 20 percent of the cropland, and continuing to convert
the land at that rate. Although farmers may see a reduction
in yields at first, Quinn is convinced that soil-building
covers like alfalfa boost fertility enough that Montanans
can make the switch without suffering.
Quinn finds more resources available now than when he first
began experimenting. He works with Montana State University
and employs a college student who assists with farm work as
well as experiments.
Quinn plans to continue experimenting with different rotations
to find which best suit his soil and crops. He is testing
shorter rotations, one based on growing peas as a green manure
every other year, alternating with a grain crop. The second
rotation is based on one year of clover, followed by two grain
crops, and then back to a year of clover or peas. Thus far,
Quinn has found that using peas as a green manure conserves
moisture better and may be a good alfalfa substitute during
Quinn believes he can be successful with the shorter rotations
because the ground has already been built up with past crops
of alfalfa and there is an abundance of nitrogen in the soil.
For Quinn, experimenting with the crops is the most enjoyable
part of farming.
“My specialty and my first love is growing plants,”
Quinn says. “I studied to be a plant scientist and since
I have come home, my whole farm is my laboratory.”
--Photograph by Philippe Van Os