Bob Quinn is a fourth-generation farmer and tireless scientist who popularized the ancient khorasan wheat with his company Kamut International. He was one of the first 100 percent certified organic farms in Montana and made the connection between healthy whole-grains and artisan bread early on, marketing his wheat directly to California bakeries. Quinn is being honored at our Organic Pioneer Awards on September 13th, 2013, but we caught up with him in advance to learn more about Kamut and the importance of farmers helping farmers .
Tell me a little bit about your back story. How did you get involved in agriculture?
I grew up in agriculture. I was raised near Big Sandy, Montana on the family farm. My grandfather founded this farm in 1920 as many of the homesteaders were starting to leave. As I was growing up, my father managed it as a 2400-acre wheat and cattle ranch. I attended local schools, earned a BS in botany and MS in plant pathology from Montana State University, and then received a PhD in plant biochemistry from UC Davis. After spending 10 years in college, I decided not to pursue a career of university research in plant science and started a small business in California. I lived there a couple years and then sold my business interests in 1978 when I decided to move my family back to our family farm in Montana. We’ve been there even since. Now my whole farm is my research lab! Even though my research efforts are small in comparison, for years I have dreamed of being the Rodale Institute of the West and have followed the work of the Institute for years.
Why Kamut? What is different about khorasan wheat and why did you think there was a market for it back in the late 80s?
I first saw the grain when I was in high school. It was 1963 at the local county fair and I was told it was King Tut’s wheat. Many years later I found out that einkorn was really the wheat found in the pharohs’ tombs. Nevertheless, it was quite a novelty; khorasan wheat is about 3 times the size of normal wheat.
Around 1977, I had an idea to make a roasted wheat snack like corn nuts with it. I asked my father to find some and we started growing it on our farm. Although that particular idea didn’t go anywhere, about 10 years later a friend in California had it made into pasta, another friend tried it for bread and another tried it for cold cereal. All three products turned out to be a fantastic success. People loved the taste and we found most non-celiac wheat sensitive people had no trouble eating it. So the grain was launched into the market place. I registered the trademark Kamut, an ancient Egyptian word for wheat, to market the grain. In order to use the Kamut trademark, the wheat must be 100% ancient and always be grown organically.
Today there are nearly 1500 different Kamut brand products in the world most of which are found in Italy where 65% of the grain goes. It is currently grown by over 250 organic farmers in the Northern Great Plains of the U.S. and Canada on nearly 70,000 acres.
What brought you to growing organically?
My biggest encouragement to grow organically came from other organic famers I met from neighboring states. I was impressed by the enthusiasm they had for what they were doing on their farms. I was intrigued with the idea of growing my own fertilizer and avoiding chemical pesticides by using rotations. We started with an experiment on 1% of our crop land in 1986, which was a great success. In 1989 we went cold turkey on chemicals with the rest of the farm and never looked back. Now I am an enthusiastic supporter and believe organic agriculture can succeed anywhere in the world. I think it is our best hope for feeding the world as well as improving the health of both our land and our people.
What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced and what was the key to overcoming that challenge?
The lack of information locally for farming organically was my biggest challenge. There was no help from local county ag extension agents or university personnel. Most of them had never considered how to farm without chemicals and many were sure it would be a failure. I finally found some organic farmers in nearby states to help me and I continued my experiments every year to develop an organic system best suited for our region of the Northern Great Plains.
How has the agricultural community changed over the last 20 years?
Our community of Big Sandy, Montana, which is agricultural, has mirrored the change experienced by most of agriculture in the country. Farm size has continued to increase, the number of farm families has continued to decrease, the average age of farmers continues to increase and opportunities for young people to get started in agriculture continue to decline. Most of my neighbors encourage their kids to do something besides farm. Farmers continue to become more dependent on other institutions. It seems dependency on government subsidies will soon be replaced by dependency on giant ag chemical companies who own all the seed, sell you all your inputs and control how you market your crops.
However, pockets of innovation are popping up everywhere on a small scale. More and more farmers are finding and filling niches in the market place created by those who are seeking organic and local food and want an alternative to the current industrial model of food production. I believe that is the most hopeful and, in the long run, the most significant trend. I look forward to the day when today’s niches become tomorrow’s mainstream.
What is your personal vision? What drives you to get out of bed every day and do what you do?
I envision an agriculture which is fun and profitable and has many young people able to pursue it as a career. At the same time I envision farms that can grow most of their own inputs (including fuel) and provide not only an adequate food supply but also food with the nutritional components to keep us and our families healthy and vibrant. Finally, I see farms that are independent of government subsidies and the confines of the industrial ag complex which require farmers to adopt a monoculture program, purchase all their inputs and relinquish control of their marketing opportunities. In the end, I believe this industrial model is completely unsustainable. Every day, I am trying to understand and improve the non-industrial, organic, sustainable model on our farm so it can be a source of ideas and inspiration to others. It is both great fun and a great challenge for me.
Are there any organic pioneers that have inspired you over the years?
Tom Harding in Pennsylvania, Fred Kirshenman in North Dakota and Dave Vetter in Nebraska. They helped me get started. All three were organic pioneers in their own right and were way ahead of me. They taught and mentored me through my initial conversion years and Tom and Dave continue to advise and inspire me today as we are in constant communication with one another.
Is there anything you wish someone had told you “before” that you could tell a new farmer just starting out?
I wish from the beginning I understood that there is no one perfect organic system that works on all farms at all times. Finding the perfect system for your own place is a wonderful, exciting and fun filled journey, but one that leads to an unattainable destination. It is unattainable because the farm keeps changing. Every time you change something on the farm, your farm changes which creates a new situation with different needs than before. So the evolution continues. The environmental forces also change year after year which affects the farm and influences what adjustments are needed the next season. So the goal should not be the destination but rather the direction one is headed. And the focus should be on joy in the journey rather than anticipating the finality of the arrival.
What tool couldn’t you live without?
When I think of tools I think of resources and my greatest resources are my family and friends. They are my support and my source of information, ideas, and encouragement. My joy and satisfaction come from serving them and associating with them.