Eat, Food & Health
The kamut economy: Bob Quinn is on a quest to restore health to farmland soil, rural economies and the food we eat
My wife says I can’t have any more new projects. She didn’t say I can’t have any more ideas. I just need to find other people to do them,” said Bob Quinn. We were at the Utah Farm and Food Conference, in Cedar City, Utah, this past January. As a keynote presenter, Quinn had a lot to share, and a captivating way of conveying his story—a sort of bon vivant cowboy. We soon could see how Quinn’s wife might need to issue such a edict.
The 71-year-old Montana wheat grower is also an entrepreneur, spokesperson for regenerative farming, community activist, Ph.D. plant biologist, inveterate tinkerer and now author, with this month’s publication of Grain by Grain: A Quest to Revive Ancient Wheat, Rural Jobs, and Healthy Food (Island Press).
Written with Stanford lecturer and author of Lentil Underground Liz Carlisle, Quinn shares the story of his journey from young boy whose father was an early adopter of the herbicide 2,4-D in Montana through his years studying botany and plant pathology, starting Montana Flour & Grain, transitioning to organics, promoting wind farms and biofuels, embracing dry-land vegetable farming and, significantly, becoming a champion of a forgotten grain. He created jobs and new businesses for many people along the way.
The sum of these endeavors puts Quinn at the heart of revitalizing a food system that employs some of the most promising greenhouse gas reduction solutions on the planet: Regenerative agriculture is ranked #11 among the top-100 solutions in Paul Hawken’s Drawdown project (see more in this issue).
In this well-told narrative, Quinn convinces us that soil is a key to our salvation. He makes cover-cropping and crop rotation sound downright sexy. (A cover-crop is a plant grown to protect and enrich the soil; crop rotation is the practice of growing different plants in different years to break cycles of disease, weeds and pests.)
The reader learns that soil exhausted through decades of petrochemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides can be rehabilitated with these practices—and that, in times of drought, these practices may save the day.
We also learn the critical importance of a seed’s genealogy, as he investigates the properties of an ancient wheat variety that, tests show, does not produce many of the reactions that wheat-sensitive people typically experience.
In Cedar City, Quinn addressed farmers and foodies whose ages spanned numerous decades. “We’re living in a system of food and agriculture controlled by multinationals lining their own pockets. Imagine—if you control the seed that you plant, you control the food that’s grown… and the people who eat it… without firing a shot. In former times, we had a close relation among farmers, gardeners and eaters. They were the same people. Things have changed so fast in the last 50 years. The big ones inserted themselves between the farmers and eaters. In college, we were taught about wheat as a commodity, not food. A very clever deception was perpetrated upon us.”
How we got here
Seeing the famine in Europe after World War II, our government’s goal was for America to produce cheap, plentiful food, said Quinn. The government poured billions of dollars into research to accomplish this. When chemical fertilizers were first applied, results did look miraculous.
Over time, however, the soil has become habituated and, as with other drugs, doses have had to be increased to achieve similar results. “We are well fed. But we’re not well nourished,” he said. “The cost at the checkout is not the real cost of our food.”
Quinn was outspoken regarding the side effects of chemical agriculture. “They tell us the more chemicals we use, the better the yields. It’s great, gross—but there’s no net income when prices are low,” he said. “This is not talked about very often. And we don’t talk about how much it has cost our communities.”
His own town was decimated as farms became bigger, requiring bigger and more expensive equipment run by fewer farmers—the result of U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz’s early 1970s admonition to “get big or get out,” along with directives from the bland-sounding Committee for Economic Development, that Quinn said were intended to drive farmers off the land and create a large pool of cheap labor for industry. Things proceeded according to plan, as rural economies withered.
Not one to mince words, Quinn stated emphatically: “The biggest cost of industrial agriculture is to our health, as more people fall prey to chronic disease.” For instance, the rate of diabetes in the U.S. was less than 1% in 1958. Today it is nearly 10%, at an annual cost of $147 billion. From denatured wheat to high fructose corn syrup, what we eat has taken its toll.
“Instead of debating which healthcare system is best, ask why so many people are sick. If you have the desire and willpower to answer that question, the healthcare costs of this country will be a fraction. Instead, we’re trying to figure out how to pay Big Pharma to produce more pills.”
Quinn’s personal journey
As a kid, Bob had a garden. “I loved my garden more than anything else. My grandfather didn’t buy into the chemical model, and taught me, instead, to compost using manure.”
But in college, where he majored in botany and plant pathology, he learned more about the chemical system that his father embraced, because “that’s what was going to feed the world,” he was told.
In grad school, Quinn grew more and more disillusioned by the industrial approach to farming. Married and with three kids by now, in 1978 he moved his family back to Montana where started Montana Farm and Grain, selling Montana wheat to California artisanal bakers, who preferred the grain from his family farm over that from the prevailing industrial farms.
When customers began to request organic, Quinn was dismissive: “Plants can’t tell the difference between a molecule of nitrogen that comes out of manure from one that comes out of a bag of ammonium sulfate,” he said at the time. But he planted a 20-acre test plot and started going to organic farm conferences, taking his parents with them.
Bob became an enthusiastic convert, even speaking at conservative Farm Bureau meetings about his newfound approach to farming. To his surprise, his dad, too, came out as a strong proponent. Within a few years, they had transitioned all their fields out of chemical. That was 30 years ago—time enough for him to also see that the organic system also has a notable advantage in the face of climate change.
Kamut and a new economy
Organic or not, as a wheat farmer Quinn was troubled to see the wheat-free gluten-free trend arise, with almost 20% of the country’s population claiming wheat sensitivities.
“How is it that the staff of life, which was the foundation of great civilizations, can be so destructive?” he asked himself.
Ever the scientist, he began studying the history of the wheat seed and stumbled upon an ancient variety with large, nut-flavored kernels that was supposedly significantly higher in important nutrients than conventional wheat.
He recognized the seed as some that he’d been given years earlier, accompanied by a romantic story about the seeds coming from “King Tut’s tomb.” As good luck would have it, his dad had a stash of these seeds in the barn from 1981. Quinn planted half an acre in 1986.
That half acre has since blossomed into 100,000 acres of carefully managed Kamut wheat grown by as many as 250 farmers for his company, Kamut International.
Flour from that first crop went to a San Francisco pasta company, and word got back to him that people who had difficulties eating wheat found they could eat this pasta. Curious, Quinn decided to investigate.
“Some people don’t like privately funded research, but this was research that no one else would do, as we were going against the grain, so to speak,” he said. He found success working with scientists in Italy: “Italians take their pasta very seriously.” Millions of research dollars, two dozen studies and 31 publications later, Quinn says the evidence demonstrates that “ancient is good for you.”
Quinn has trademarked Kamut, but the trademark does not prevent anyone from growing it—he says it is just a way to guarantee his product is always organic, pure, nonGMO, disease-free and high in selenium and protein. He requires growers to alternate crops with a year of legumes for nitrogen, resulting in very high levels of protein for the Kamut crops. Further, this drought-tolerant grain grows best where there is low rainfall. He and the farmers who grow for him practice dryland-farming—no irrigation, resulting in lower yields but a more nutritious product.
Asked if he thought the wheat/gluten epidemic was a fad, Quinn answered, “Celiac, an autoimmune disease, is a very specific disorder. There’s zero tolerance. Allergies are a histamine response but they’re mostly tossed in with sensitivities, or vice versa. But some of the symptoms are actually caused by glyphosate contamination.” Glyphosate is best known as the active ingredient in the weed killer RoundUp. Sprayed on wheat in the fall, it hastens the maturing process so heads are ripe to harvest before it snows.
“The makers of glyphosate say it has no effect on humans because it works on certain metabolic pathways that humans don’t have. But we know it’s disrupting metabolic pathways in bacteria, both in the soil and in the gut.”
At the conference, we also heard briefly from co-author and fellow Montana native Liz Carlisle, currently lecturer in the School of Earth, Energy and Environmental Sciences at Stanford University and former assistant to Democratic Montana Senator John Tester.
“My grandmother’s family lost the farm in the dustbowl. I learned from her the agrarian life is special and that we need to learn more about stewarding our soil,” Carlisle said. She met Montana farmers and heard their stories as she traveled throughout the country working on her book, Lentil Underground: Renegade Farmers and the Future of Food in America (Avery, 2016). She’d first heard of Quinn in 2008 from Tester, who referred to Quinn as a “visionary.” The fact that Quinn claimed to be Republican held no sway with Tester.
“There’s plenty of things we don’t agree about, but the main thing I’m up against here in DC is not Republicans; it’s multinational corporations that have a stranglehold on agriculture and energy and don’t give a lick about the hardworking Montanans whose livelihoods depend on these industries,” Tester told Carlisle at the time. “Instead of being beholden to these multinationals, we need to build our own economic opportunities, based on renewable resources and good, green jobs that won’t go away after the next oil boom. And that’s what Bob Quinn is doing.”
Greta Belanger deJong is the founder and editor of CATALYST. In ancient times she was a staff writer at Countryside, an organic farming magazine.
Bob Quinn will give a talk and sign Grain By Grain Friday, March 29, 7pm at the Petersen Family Farm, 11887 S. 4000 West, Riverton.