An Interview with Bob Quinn, author of Grain by Grain: A Quest to Revive Ancient Wheat, Rural Jobs, and Healthy Food
An Interview with Bob Quinn, author of Grain by Grain. A Quest to Revive Ancient Wheat, Rural Jobs, and Healthy Food. By Jennifer Breckner/Artisan Grain Collaborative
Bob Quinn earned a PhD in biochemistry many years ago before returning to Montana to work the family farm. In the 1980s, he began experimenting with organic farming and regenerative agricultural practices and has never looked back. He is the founder of the multi-million dollar heirloom grain company, Kamut International. In March of 2019, Island Press published Grain by Grain, his first book.
Artisan Grain Collaborative (AGC): Bob, congratulations to you and co-author, Liz Carlisle, on the publication of your book, Grain by Grain: A Quest to Revive Ancient Wheat, Rural Jobs, and Healthy Food. And, thanks for taking time out of your busy book tour schedule to speak with the Artisan Grain Collaborative. In the book’s introduction Carlisle writes that you are interested in “building a twenty-first-century economy.” What does that look like to you?
Bob Quinn (BQ): It looks like the revitalization of neighborhood communities by adding value back to the community through small local business and enterprises and helping to reverse the extraction of wealth and life from these communities by the industrialization, concentration and consolidation of almost everything over the past 70 years.
AGC: A concept that comes up in the book more than once is the idea of trust in business relationships. For example, Carlisle quotes University of Montana professor and organic farming scholar, Neva Hassanein— who did sabbatical work with you—as saying that your ancient grain Kamut project, launched in the 1990’s, is “built [on] this little oasis of trust that is totally the opposite of the race to the bottom going on in corporate America.” In addition, in the book’s conclusion you mention that former head of distribution for Sysco [an American multinational food marketing and distribution company], Rick Schnieders, sees the end of our love affair with cheap, fast food coming to an end and believes that the new buzzword will be “trust.” Why do you think trust is so important in business and what does a relationship based on it look like?
BQ: In the end trust is all we have. It does not matter how many lawyers produce countless pages of an agreement, if there is not trust it is no better than the paper it written on. If there is trust and understanding a handshake will be enough to seal the agreement and the relationship looks like business among friends who see every deal as a small part of a big picture where everyone wins.
AGC: Is this a new concept and if not, what happened to make it disappear?
BQ: This is not a new concept but it became lost, when the sense and reality of community was lost – when businessmen no longer knew the names of their customers and when customers no longer shopped down the street or around the corner in their neighborhoods. It is not hard to program a machine to take your orders and deliver your goods without ever having to look you in the eye and say “satisfaction guaranteed.” We lost a good deal of trust when we lost human contact and interaction from doing business with our friends and neighbors.
AGC: In this book you share how through building your business you’ve met and worked with people around the world. The problems that you lay out with industrial agriculture negatively affect us on a macro scale, yet whether you are in Turkey or Italy, for example, you always bring these issues and concerns back to your hometown of Big Sandy, Montana. Why is that?
BQ: Big Sandy is my home – it is where I have spent most of my time – the place and community I know best – where I was raised, educated and learned most of the great lessons of life from family and the early teachers I had. I saw the community in action, helping one another regardless of religion, politics or background, coming together to build community swimming pools, community hospitals when there was not government or other help to do the job and meet the need as well as helping neighbors build basements, barns and houses. Then over the years I saw so much of the community slip away. The wealth and life was sucked out of it by the very organizations who said they were in business to help agriculture thrive and prosper while feeding the world.
AGC: Your business model has a moral or ethical bent to it. For example, you talk about your early promotion of Kamut, where the pricing structure was set the same for both small and large companies so that small companies were not at a competitive disadvantage. This is not the way that most business works. What is at the root of that philosophy and how do you think it benefits your company and the partners that you have?
BQ: The root of the philosophy is that everyone wins – and everyone gains their own advantage by their own efforts in adding some type of value, not by extracting the value unfairly compensated from those either upstream or downstream in the value chain. I think this gives everyone a more equal chance to prosper and succeed.
AGC: In Grain by Grain you mention two distinct groups that are very important to the growth of your business and to organic production in general: bakers and eaters. Could you talk about the role that each has played in helping your farm grow?
BQ: It was a whole grain baker in Southern California who gave us our first break and started buying our high protein wheat directly from our farm. The premiums they paid us enabled us to capture more of the real value of what we were growing on our farm rather than surrendering much of that value to large out of state grain companies. It was this same bakery that asked for organic grain in only the second year of our operation and asked us to give them stone milled flour in the third year of our operation. Each step allowed us to add more value to the production from our farm and keep more of that value in our community. The eaters are normally one step removed from me because we have normally not sold directly to them. But they are the ones who pull my product through the bakeries and other processors.
AGC: And, generally, what role does each group play in growing the market for artisanal grains and flours?
BQ: They are both very important because the industrialized bakeries will not change anything until there is a huge shift in the buying public. So the role of the artisan bakers is to provide small niches in the beginning to make what interests them and what their customers want. If those eaters will stay loyal to the small local bakeries, it will give opportunities for those bakeries to grow in number and start to reverse the trend from a centralized industrial model to local specialized models. The bakers can then play a big role in supporting farmers and encouraging them to grow the artisan grains they are looking for, hopefully using organic methods to add more health and value to the grain.
"I look at my farmer friends who are not organic as future organic farmers and offer to help them convert whenever they are ready or show an interest to do so."
AGC: You write that when you transitioned to organic cultivation “farming became fun” because “your farm became [your] laboratory.” Could you elaborate more on how organic farming stokes your creativity and curiosity and what role, if any, creativity will play in addressing the challenges of future food production?
BQ: It was fun for me because it was going from a prescriptive industrial model to a free flowing model that adapted to what was happening in nature in a very diversified way. I really started learning about what was the root cause of trouble when we ran into a problem on our farm. Once I understood the cause I was able to respond with a real solution rather than just treating symptoms (the great American band aid approach) as was the usual case with industrial ag and industrial medicine, I might add. I loved it because I was a researcher at heart but that is not so common for most farmers, hence the real need for government research programs. Even my research could have benefited by support of large government grants and university research teams which could have expanded greatly my research goals. Many university research projects were done on my farm and I was involved with a few of them for which I was thankful.
AGC: How does your willingness to take risks grow your business?
BQ: Life is a risk. Almost everything we do is. The question is, how much risk are we comfortable with in order to move forward. If we try to avoid it all, which really is not possible, we will make very little progress as we will not want to change anything [while] the whole world is in constant change so that is not a recipe for success. If we at the other extreme constantly risk everything with a giant change of direction or a giant leap forward, we will probably end up losing everything at some point. I am somewhere in between those two extremes. I will tend to keep at least one foot securely planted in what I have and understand well, while my hands and other foot search for new ideas and new applications of old ideas.
AGC: Do you ever worry that you’ll fail?
BQ: No. I think if a person believes they will succeed or if they believe they will fail, usually they are correct in their belief. I never start something with the idea or fear of failure. I focus on success and how I can achieve it.
AGC: As an organic farmer, what is your relationship to non-organic farmers in Big Sandy as well as in your professional experience here and abroad?
BQ: My non-organic farmers in Big Sandy are my friends and neighbors. Those I meet abroad are not really neighbors but certainly are my friends. I have very few [people I’ve met who are] just acquaintances socially or in business. Strangers to me are just friends I have not met yet. I try to treat them all with love, respect and kindness as I would hope to receive from them which happens most of the time. I look at my farmer friends who are not organic as future organic farmers and offer to help them convert whenever they are ready or show an interest to do so.
AGC: You mention that conventional farmers are learning from organic practices and incorporating those practices into what they do. Could you elaborate?
BQ: I think the increase in the popularity of cover crops is a good example of this. Crop rotations and soil building and regeneration are at the heart at organic systems and now these basic concepts are being recognized and applied at a much broader scale in non organic systems.
AGC: And, do you think this will continue to happen as we deal more with climate change and as industrial farmers continue to struggle financially?
BQ: Yes – the diversity of organic systems is another one of the basic principles of regenerative organic systems. Diversity and resiliency of regenerative organic systems are two of the best ways to help us respond to climate change and the sequestration of carbon, so fundamental to organic systems, is the best way to mediate climate change.
AGC: Is there a point of crossover or connection for these two groups?
BQ: Yes as these two systems grow closer to each other–organic looking for more successful ways to reduce tillage and non-organic farmers look for more successful ways to substitute home grown inputs and practices for chemicals–there will be a point at which both systems meet and merge.
AGC: Throughout the book you mention the devastating affects that our love of industrial agriculture and cheap food has had on our health, and the health of our communities and the environment, particularly in rural communities. Here I’m thinking about the astounding rates of childhood food insecurity and child hunger that you talk about in chapter 9. Yet, throughout the book, you maintain a tone of enthusiasm and hope that is infectious. Why is this?
BQ: [It] is always my nature to look for and believe in the possibility of finding solutions to problems. If we believe there are no solutions or even worse that there are not problems, we will never believe there are solutions that can be found or that we should even seek them.
AGC: What sorts of endeavors or achievements or people make you hopeful for the future?
BQ: I see points of light like stars starting to appear at twilight and growing more apparent and bright as the sky continues to darken. They are found in my own neighborhood as grown children return to their home farmsteads bringing new ideas for enterprises that can add value to the farm. I see them throughout the state and the nation and with the appearance of small local enterprises, artisan bakeries, breweries, CSAs and many other community supported and centered activities.
AGC: Lastly, how do we, as individual citizens, remain hopeful enough so that we might continue to work day-by-day to right the wrongs of our broken food system?
BQ: The best way to remain hopeful, I think, is to meet and join with anyone in your local community that is trying to mend the food system. You will find the enthusiasm among those folks for what they do is contagious and you can become part of the community, which is supporting them. This support is crucial for their success and the change we desire for our food system for the good of all of us. In the end we want a food system where everyone wins – the farmer gets fair prices and is a good steward of their soil, communities are revitalized, the earth begins to heal by reducing pollution and the nourishment and health and vitality of all improve by healthier food.