at a Glance
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 green manure)
• 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 increase profits.
The New American Farmer: Profiles of Agricultural
By the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education
© 2003, Beltsville MD. Used by permission. Pp.
146 to 148
For complete text or to order: www.sare.org/newfarmer
To contact SARE:
Phone (301) 504-6425
Fax (301) 504-5207
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
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 and sales.
“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 weed growth.
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 field.
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 certified organic.
Focal Point of Operation —
Producing and marketing organic wheat
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,” he says.
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
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 chemicals.
“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
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
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
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
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 significantly better.”
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
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,” he says.
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
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
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.”