You’ll not see nothing like the mighty Quinn
This pioneering farmer honored at Ecofarm 2004 comes from a long
agricultural lineage, though he’s the first to admit that organic farming was
matter of adaptation, not inheritance.

S p o n s o r B o x
The Ecological Farming Association

The Ecological Farming Association (EFA) is a nonprofit educational organization that promotes ecologically sound agriculture.

EFA has been at the forefront of sustainable agriculture education for almost 25 years. Its innovative programs—including the recent 24th Annual Ecological Farming Conference Jan. 21-24 in Pacific Grove, Calif.—bring together growers, researchers, activists, and industry-related businesses to share the most recent advances in sustainable food production and marketing.

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Posted June 30, 2004: Fourth generation farmer Bob Quinn grows organic wheat and other grains and legumes on his family’s 2,400-acre Quinn Farm and Ranch in Big Sandy, Montana. In the late ’70s, Quinn saw the need to diversify, so he founded Montana Flour & Grains and began marketing the region’s high-protein wheat to whole grain bakeries. By 1989, Quinn’s entire farming operation was converted to organic, with four- and five-year rotation cycles that included legumes and hay.

In 1987, Quinn trademarked the name Kamut in order to market khorasan wheat, a high-protein, high-selenium, hypoallergenic grain purported to have its origins in ancient Egypt. Quinn continues to use the Kamut trademark to assure the purity of products bearing the name, to see to it that Kamut is always grown organically, and to support continued research into the ancient grain. Besides organic wheat (Quinn also grows durum, hard red winter and soft white), the farm also produces buckwheat, barley, flax, lentils, alfalfa, and peas. About half the farm’s products are marketed in Europe.

Bob Quinn was honored January 24. 2004, at the 24th annual Ecological Farming Conference in Pacific Grove, Calif., in recognition of his pioneering efforts as an organic farmer.

Editor’s note: What follows is an abridged version of Quinn’s address at Ecofarm. Click here to hear the unabridged audio file.


Hear the unabridged audio file

“Thanks very much. I really appreciate that warm welcome. With all the experts out there, I’m reminded of a prayer I saw in a newspaper last week. It went something like this: ‘Oh Lord, please make me the kind of person that my dog thinks I am.’

“…Let’s see, I was going to tell you a little bit about my history. I really enjoy family history research and I was quite amazed to find a couple of years ago that two of my great grandfathers, Richard Pace and Samuel Macox, were farming tobacco in 1618 along the James River, and that’s two years before the Pilgrims showed up. Following those lines down fourteen generations that separate them from me, I found a farmer in every generation somewhere along the line. So I got it in my blood I guess I came by that naturally.

“But I didn’t come naturally by being an organic farmer. I wasn’t born an organic farmer; I had to go through a conversion. I’ll tell you a little bit about that. It took 300 years for my family in those fourteen generations…to cross the country, one generation at a time, everyone moving a little further west, going on for new land and a new adventure.

“The Quinn part of the family, my Quinn side, came from Ireland during the last part of the potato famine, and maybe because of that their first generation was not farmers, but the second generation returned to the land. My great grandfather in Nebraska started out in a sod house and went broke there, and went to Alberta and went broke there, and then went to Washington. My grandfather, their son, ended up in Montana, and he was the first Quinn to settle in the big sandy area of Montana. He had to start out with a milk cow and a rented parcel of ground in 1920, and we’re still there after 84 years.

"But I didn’t come naturally by being an organic farmer. I wasn’t born an organic farmer; I had to go through a conversion."

“In those days of course, they all worked with horses. They cut grain with header boxes and reapers and …with the thrashing machines that were done by steam engines, and my great grandfather had one. He was instrumental in introducing an idea of summer fallow to that part of central Washington, which means you don’t grow a crop. We do the same thing in Montana. You don’t have enough rain to grow crops every year; you have to let the ground go idle to accumulate water to grow a good crop the second year. That’s what they starting introducing in Washington. They came from Iowa and didn’t have to worry about droughts much in Iowa.

“Okay, now we’re in Montana…I live in north central Montana on the prairie. Big Sandy [is] a little town of about 800 people, and that’s if you’re counting some of the cats and dogs. That’s where I grew up. That was my home town. We farmed about 13 miles southeast of town. We lived on a little hill…We had beef and cattle, that’s what I grew up with. This is cattle country and, where you can farm the land where it’s flat enough, wheat is the king. That was the diversity I was used to. In 1916, Big Sandy was just in the height of the homesteading era. They had a great crop and everybody brought their wagons to town full of wheat. [A] picture [of that harvest] was published all over the country in order to lure people in to the region; the railroad was trying to get them in for business purposes. That was about the last good crop they had for about 15 years.

“By the time my grandfather showed up in 1920, a lot of the first wave of homesteaders were going out. The homestead land was 320 acres by that time. Even that much was not enough to support a family in this region of the country. My grandfather got to see the transition from horse power to tractor power. He stayed on the farm until about ’48, and then my father returned to the farm after World War II and decided he didn’t want to be an electrical engineer anymore. He advanced from pull-type combines to self-propelled combines and expanded the farm until the point where we did our farming in about 2,400 acres.

“That’s the farm I grew up on—2,400 acres may sound like a lot in California, but in Montana it’s really only average size. It’s all dry land, and it would be a very small cattle ranch, which we had half (about 50 head) of a great herd of beef cattle, or it would be a fairly good size grain production of a farm if you had it all in grains. We were diversified. I came back to the farm in ’78, and now the combines are not only self-propelled we have a cab with air conditioning and all luxury we only dreamed about. Everybody had big machinery and more land and more depth and less fun.

“I started looking around and saying, ‘What is really the matter with this picture? Is this really the way we want to go? Is this what we want in our farms just to have a bigger machine and far more acres with less people?’ That bothered me a little bit; I didn’t really sit down and come up with any great solution, but it bothered me. It wasn’t as fun as I had imagined.

“I went to school to be a plant scientist. I went to college 10 years; you’d think that would have been enough. I studied botany and plant pathology and then I came to Davis, and was at Davis for 5 years studying about chemistry, and by the time I was finished with all of that I was really disillusioned with academia. Is that a surprise? What I saw there was people who were spending their time trying to figure out how they’re going to get their next big government grant and doing empire building instead of really cooperative science in pushing back the frontier of knowledge and all that stuff that as an idealist and as a kid you think you want to be a part of.

"Is this what we want in our farms just to have a bigger machine and far more acres with less people?’ That bothered me a little bit. It wasn’t as fun as I had imagined."
“That’s not what I wanted to be a part of, so I came back to the farm. I thought’, ‘I’ll turn my whole farm into a research laboratory and I’ll just have fun.’ Well, you have to pay the bills too, and I found that out real quick. So, I started looking at alternatives. I decided ‘Why not market? We grow the highest protein wheat in the country, or some of the highest. We sell the best quality in the country…We weren’t getting credit for the good quality we produced. So, I thought, ‘why not get this stuff to people who’d appreciate it?’ And it ended up I found a cousin in Southern California, through family research, who was a fourth cousin on mine. He was out of work and he didn’t have anything to do. He wanted to grow pheasants. I said, ‘Well, instead of growing pheasants, why don’t you see if you can sell some of my high-protein wheat to whole grain bakers.’ (I knew you had some here because I used to live here.)

“He called me within less than a week and said he got a customer for my grain…and we formed a very informal partnership. He formed a company in California and I formed a company in Montana. We called it Montana Flour and Grain…but I started getting all these calls thinking I was the Montana Wheat and Barley Commission, so I changed that to Montana Flour and Grains. We started selling grain off our farm to bakers in the L.A. area who were looking for high quality grain and they said, ‘This is great stuff!’

“The thing that we did that kept the business going when we couldn’t provide the grain from our own farm that met their specs, I went out and found stuff that did so we kept our customers and kept our customers happy. That’s the first rule of business, keep your customers happy. That was my goal, and we were able to do that…I was the quality control man and wheat locator, and my cousin was the customer-relations man. He kept the customers happy, and worked out logistics...

“So, the next year they said to us, ‘Can you find some more organic grain with that same kind of quality?’ and I said, ‘Well, sure; of course we can.’ I had no idea where there was any organic grain in Montana, but I made a few calls and checked around. Three hundred miles away from me in the northeast corner right next to North Dakota, we found some organic grain. So I went up there and filled out all the paperwork (these are the days of self-certification and affidavits), so I went into the certification business—my own certification business, sort of—and filled out the affidavits that I didn’t spray and I didn’t do this and that, and they met all the requirements that California law had at that time.

“So we started that way, and I started getting acquainted with organic farmers, and I became very intrigued about what they were doing and their relationship with their farm. They were having a good time; they were having fun. I would go to large organizations that will remain unnamed and they would be talking about how we’re going to get more money out of the government for our commodities, our wheat commodities. That wasn’t fun for me, I didn’t think that was the direction we should be doing, but that was survival, that’s how people were thinking about surviving.

“When I first went to an organic wheat growers meeting because I had now became a little interested in this, I was astounded at how much fun these guys are having talking about their farms. This is really appealing to me. I love the idea of growing my own fertilizer. I love the idea of having alternatives to spraying herbicides. We didn’t really use much pesticides in Montana. It’s forty below in the winter and that takes care of most of the bugs.But the weeds are a problem, of course, and so we always spray for that. My dad and I farm together. It’s a big place, but two of us can farm all of this except for harvest—my wife and my mother and sister would help a little bit with the harvest.

“But the two of us pretty well farm together and I always had dad doing the spraying, and this is terrible, but I figured, ‘Well, he’s all done having kids,’ you see, and I never really liked the smell of this stuff. He would walk by my garden, my plants had all curled up at the tree lots—we have shelter at both sides of our place to protect us from the winds at the prairie—and they would always be curling from the spray drift. I didn’t really like it but there was no alternative.

“To find that there was an alternative, this was quite exciting to me, so we started having some family corporate meetings. How many of you have a farm corporation? How many know what it’s like to be in the minority position? So, I would bring up these great ideas and my dad said, ‘Well this is really too risky, it can’t be done here. There’s not enough rain. We can’t grow green manures. There’s no place to market this stuff,’ and on and on and on.

"I always had dad doing the spraying, and this is terrible, but I figured, ‘Well, he’s all done having kids.’"

“Through Montana Grains (and to get back to that in a second) in 1985 our customers said to us out in California, ‘You know if you could just now bring us stone-ground flower, the same kind of quality as the wheat, why we would buy everything you could produce.’ And so we thought, ‘Wow! This is great!’ So we bought a stone mill from Austria and all the folks in Austria said, ‘All you have to do is plug this in the wall.’ So, I had a friend who sold insurance in Great Falls, and he hated his job. I said, ‘Why don’t you quit your job and come work for me and be a flour miller.’ He said, ‘Wow! That sounds like a great idea!’ And he went home and told his wife and she cried all night.

“Anyway, we started out with a book and a few phone calls and within a year or so we were starting to mill our own flour. Imagine that—our own stone ground flour! It was great. Everybody loved it, of course, and we called up our customers in southern California and said, ‘Okay, how much do you want?’ And this is the guy who said to me, ‘We’ll buy everything you can produce, he said, ‘Well, gee whiz, that’s great. I’ll probably take five-, ten-thousand pounds.’ And I said, ‘Ten thousand pounds?’ I thought to myself, I didn’t really say anything, but I thought, ‘That won’t even pay the electricity bill this month.’ And so that’s how we started.

“Luckily, we were still selling grain by the truckload. The grain sales really pulled along the flour business until it could get up to paying its own way. So luckily we didn’t have any big wrecks, and I’m very thankful for that. We started and, by 1988, we were half organic. We started transitioning from conventional grain to organic grains. By 1992-93, we were 99 percent organic, so I really specialized in that. Well, I became converted (and I’ll tell you about that in a second).

“Then we built a cleaning plant so we had everything under our own control; we could clean the grain when we needed it. We either sold it as bagged grain or milled whole grain flours—stone-ground whole-wheat flour. Getting back to the farm conversion story, because of this kind of marketing we started going to natural food expos and we went to the first one in Anaheim and had our own booth in ’86. My mother and dad went with me and thousands of people came by and said, ‘Oh! That’s great! We’re so glad you’re growing this stuff and thank you and thank you.’ My father was astounded. He came home and he said, ‘Well, it appears there is a market for this stuff.’ So we had another corporate meeting and I got to experiment with 20 acres. Now that’s about 1 percent of our cropland. And I did a 20-acre experiment, and low-and-behold my organic experiment—which was on old alfalfa ground—was just as good as the crop, both in quality and quantity, as the non-organic field. I used a narrow-spacing drill, that was about the only difference…and it made the rows closer together and it prevented the light from coming in and growing the weeds between the rows. The rains came just right so we didn’t have any early weeds. My organic field was actually cleaner than our sprayed fields because it had late summer rains which brought the other weeds up through the grain fields and the conventional fields because there were a lot of places for the sun to come through.

"If there’s anyone out here in the conversion mode, please do it slowly unless you have a big bank roll; then you can do it if that’s what you want."
“So, that was quite amazing and that was really exciting to me now because I was starting to get really, really enthused about converting to organic agriculture. The second year we went from 1 percent to about 30 percent of the farm, and then the third year I just went cold turkey the whole rest of the way. Now that’s not the way I would suggest you do it. If there’s anyone out here in the conversion mode, please do it slowly unless you have a big bank roll; then you can do it if that’s what you want. But I have to be honest, it can be done over four or five years of conversion where you won’t be at all affected by the decrease in yields and the transition period of marketing…and that sort of thing that you’ll face in your transition. So anyway, we didn’t do that, we just crashed in but it turned out okay. The transition was kind of hard. The yields went down, we of course couldn’t market as organic until it had gone through that period and so we had the other businesses to sort of pull the farm along, so that worked out alright.

“I’ll talk about my crops [shows family portrait]. This is my most important crop. They matured quite a bit since this picture; my son is now 10 and my daughters are all, well, three-quarters of them are all married, so I have five kids and I have five grandkids, so that’s kind of a shocker! It’s a lot of fun. So now we’re into the next generation, and the reason I show this and the reason I showed my ancestry and talked about that is because I think it’s really important for us to recall and remember and appreciate the sacrifices that have been made in the past by those who have really gone before us and also to farm in a way that’s not only profitable so that we can raise a family and help them with their needs but also provide a farm that can be taken over by them or someone else in the future.

I believe that stewardship really in any part of that is leaving the land better than we found it, and that’s why I think it’s important to look to the future. We’re past the time that my fourteen generations had of moving west each generation. We’re past that—that’s gone. Now we must take what we have—we’re covering the country—we must take what we have and try to undo some of the pillage of the past and try to make it better and sustainable for the future.

“I want to tell you a little bit about my grain…how we plant legumes and grains together…We have normally about a five year rotation. One year we grow a green manure crop and that will sustain us for two or three crops after that. Normally, my green manures are alfalfa and I grow them under the nurse crop, and when we cut that nurse crop in the fall the alfalfa can grow if there are fall rains. Then we store all our grain in steel bins, there are 2,500 to 5,000 bushels. We don’t really worry about bugs if we aerate…We level everything off so the bugs can’t have a place to start. We don’t have to worry about too many insects.

“The alfalfa will come up in the spring, we roll the ground because there are rocks and we have to get down to where we can get closer to the ground. So we have, with alfalfa, the advantage in that we have a hay crop the second year and it gives the plants more time to also keep nourishment in the ground and we’ll make that into round bails. But the third year, we plow down the alfalfa and that’s our green manure year. My neighbors think I’m absolutely crazy about this, but I used to do it at night. Anyway, and then we can grow about two or three crops.

“Lentils are the highest value crop we sell; we sell all of those to Germany, and we don’t sell very many. The market isn’t that big, but they’re worth a lot of money. We sell [buckwheat] to Europe, too, because there’s not a lot of buckwheat market in this country. I don’t make money on buckwheat, but it’s great for the soil. It helps me build the soil up, it helps with weed control—breaking up weed cycles—and that’s why I do that.

“We also face hailstorms. There’s nothing we can with cut worms either; we just let them go through the cycle. They don’t come up very often. Sometimes we get help from the good Lord, this year a…butterfly larvae [whose] favorite food is Canadian thistle, so that’s nice. They don’t come every year. My favorite bug is lady beetle and we’ve seen a lot more of them since we’ve started doing clovers and alfalfa in our rotations. All these and some experiments I don’t have time to tell you about. There are some biological control experiments…I’m doing experiments all the time.

“The Kamut story, I started out as a young fellow in junior high. We went to a county fair one time and here this old man was passing out this giant grain, and he said it was King Tut’s wheat. I said, ‘Wow, that’s pretty interesting.’ And it was interesting, but the trouble was no one knew what to do with this stuff. I mean, he said his son had gathered a few kernels out of a tomb in Egypt—and that made a great story—and brought it over, sent it over to his dad right after World War II. His dad grew it up and he used to pass it out at county fairs as a novelty. A lot of people had a little jar of it – that was in the early ’60s.

“In the late ’70s, I was in Davis. I was pretty much finishing up there. I was reading a package (on the back of a package) of corn nuts one day and it said, Corn Nuts—made with a giant corn. And I thought, ‘Ah, I wonder if Corn Nuts would be interested in a giant wheat. So I called up Corn Nuts and I talked to the research people and they said, yes, that it was very interesting, and so I call up my dad and I said, ‘Dad, see if you can go find one of those old jars of King Tut’s wheat that used to be around.’ Dad went all around to his friends and he finally found one, he found one jar, one cup of this old King Tut’s wheat. So, he started growing it in the garden; we grew it up a couple years in the garden. We brought it to some friends in California and they grew it through the winter, so I had about one hundred pounds. So, I called the Corn Nuts people and I sent some samples down and they said, ‘Great!’ And then I went up, you know how they do in the corporate world, they go up to the next level and the next level and I got up to the point where people were saying ‘well, um, what’s the availability of this stuff?’ Of course, I went back down and said ‘Well, the availability of this stuff is one farmer in Montana,’ and they said, ‘Oh, we’re not very interested in that kind of a situation.’ So, we put our sack on our shelf and that was where it sat for about four years.

“When we went to our first food show, my dad took his jar and he was just showing it to everybody. Finally, a fellow at the end of the show came up and said, ‘Wow! An ancient grain not hybridized or anything. This is just what I’m looking for.’ He was a macrobiotic guy. He was eating whole grains and that’s what he wanted, so we got all excited. He said to me, ‘If you grow this stuff I will buy everything you can produce.’ Well, this you know is the second time now I’ve heard this. We thought, “Wow, we’ll grow this stuff. We’ll grow 5 or 6 acres and we’ll sell it by the pound in these little packages and this, well this will be just like a gold mine.

So, we started growing it and a friend of mine in California who we was working with at the food show said he had an idea for this, and he took it to a pasta manufacturer and they made pasta. They had a blind test panel and they picked out the best pasta taste and everybody picked the same one. When they flipped over the cards, a fellow was there from somewhere near here…and he said, ‘Well, I know which one is my artichoke pasta, it’s the one everybody loves.” And they flipped over the card; it wasn’t his artichoke at all, it was ours.

"We’re past the time that my fourteen generations had of moving west each generation. We’re past that—that’s gone. Now we must take what we have—we’re covering the country—we must take what we have and try to undo some of the pillage of the past and try to make it better and sustainable for the future."
“…And so we started passing it out to our friends, and I had one friend who had terrible wheat allergies and all these [other] allergies. She called up the next day and she said, ‘What is this stuff? When I eat this it makes me feel better.’ I said, ‘Ooh, well we’ll give you some more.’ We gave her some more and she gave it to her sister and her sister ate it for a month and she was less allergic to other things. Then we got really serious about this; we thought this is something really special. I started doing research on it…We told the tomb story as a legend; it’s a great story, right, but I really couldn’t say the fact that we could verify that. And then we needed a name, so I said, “Well, I wonder what the Egyptians call this?” So I went to the hieroglyphics dictionary we have in Great Falls, it was kind of an old one, but in the dictionary it said “wheat”, you could go back and see what the wheat was, and wheat was kamut. I said kamut, ah that’s a nice name. So it’s coming from a dead language so we trademarked it. So that’s our trademark—Kamut. Now some people think since we’re putting a trademark on a grain we own the grain. Well I want to make something real clear: Only the Lord owns the grain. Okay, we don’t own the grain, but we do own the trademark, you see. So anybody could grow this grain; they could do whatever they wanted with it really. We finally figured out it was a near relative of a germ, it really has never been hybridized or changed in any way but anyone could really grow it and do whatever they want with it, but if they want to use the name Kamut, which is a trademark, then they have to talk to me and I’ll tell them ‘Here are the rules: It has to be organic, it has to be a certain purity and all these other things that we put in this trademark so that it means something, so people can identify with a certain quality and expect that and receive that. That’s kind of the 15-year story in a nutshell, and we started with a handful.

Okay, this is my wrap up. Now we’ve gone all over the world with this stuff and it’s really been a great joy. So, in conclusion, let me tell you (I know there’s many success stories out there,. but there may be a few that are just starting out, so let me tell you this) If we had any success at all, it’s because of the inspiration I’ve received from leaders who are here and throughout the country in the movement that have really inspired me. It’s been from my family and friends who have really encouraged me and helped me. It’s been from my Creator who really sustained me. And I know that that same kind of help is available to all of you. I encourage you, if you’re just starting out, to work hard, study hard, pray hard, and see what the neighbors are doing in this area who have succeeded; take encouragement and some ideas from them. I wish you great success, great happiness, and have fun.

Thank you.