The First International Conference of Wheat Landraces for Healthy Food Systems

Updated October 20, 2017—

As Scottish poet, Robert Burns, once wrote, “the best laid plans of mice and men oft go awry.” So it should come as no surprise that several months after making the announcement here on my blog, while helping to organize an international conference, we found that we were unable to complete everything necessary to host our event in St. Petersburg by our originally scheduled date. During the reorganization period, a couple of significant changes occurred, including a new conference location and, of course, a new date.

And so I am very pleased to announce the First International Conference of Wheat Landraces for Healthy Food Systems will officially take place at the historic and world-famous University of Bologna in Italy on July 13-15, 2018! I invite you to visit our website for more information, as well as instructions on how to register for any interested parties. See you in Bologna in June 2018!

*While I am saddened that we were unable to host this first conference in St. Petersburg, as I had first hoped, I expect we will have a wonderful conference in Bologna. And perhaps one day we will have an opportunity to hold a future conference within the inspirational walls of the Vavilov Institute.


During the summer of 2015, I had the opportunity to visit the Vavilov Institute of Plant Genetic Resources in St. Petersburg, Russia. I had first heard of this seed bank from my science teacher in high school and my first visit to this place was an incredible inspiration to me.

For those of you who may not know, the Vavilov Institute has a rich and dedicated heritage of collecting and preserving seeds from all over the world. Perhaps among the most moving examples of this dedication was the amazing sacrifices of the scientists during the 900-day siege of St. Petersburg during World War II. Many of these dedicated individuals gave their lives, starving to death, while protecting and preserving the seeds within the walls of this institution.

Vavilov Institute, St. Petersburg, Russian

© Alex Florstein Fedorov, Wikimedia Commons

Today, many plant scientists around the world are putting their professional lives on the line by not following the dominating dogma of biotech that focuses largely on yield and efficiency. They have chosen, instead, to study and report the importance of landraces and ancient grains and how they may be a good match for regenerative organic agriculture with an emphasis on nutrition and health, rather than just increasing yields and efficiency of manufacturing.

And so, to the site of such heroic and selfless acts to preserve seeds in the past, Kamut International, IFOAM Organics International and the Vavilov Institute will be inviting many of the modern-day protectors and promoters of wheat landraces and populations, as well as extending an invitation to any who may be of interest, to gather and discuss their findings and ideas at the First International Conference of Wheat Landraces for Healthy Food Systems in St. Petersburg, Russia July 19-22, 2017*.

Our hope is to bring together like-minded scientists from around the world to discuss the health challenges of modern wheat as well as its production and processing with a focus on finding solutions to those challenges. Our intention is for this to be more than a meeting of great minds, this will be a problem-solving conference to help and to encourage those working in this area by exchanging ideas, debating theories and developing new hypotheses to examine.

Personally, I am very excited about this historic event and also wish to invite any interested, forward-looking food company executives, leaders in agriculture and government officials. If we missed you in our initial outreach, please contact me for more information.

A Perennial Possibility: The Potential of Perennial Wheat

Farming is hard work! It means long hours in the fields, seeding and harvesting and all the preparation, hope and prayers in between. With organic agriculture, it also means watching each field for signs of disease and pests while closely monitoring weed competition and adjusting crop rotations to accommodate. This includes adding some aspect of “no till” which would reduce the need for tillage to keep down weeds. For me, this is one of the reasons there is a definite appeal in the idea of perennial wheat.

Perennials and biennials aren’t an unfamiliar concept on our farm; we companion seed alfalfa and clover with our wheat or other cash crops as part of our crop rotation to save time, energy and resources when planting. As I mentioned before, reducing the need for tillage is a potential benefit of perennial wheat which we take advantage of with our alfalfa and clover. For our clover, we do not till the soil for about 14 months. And for the alfalfa, it’s 26 – 38 months, depending on how long we let the alfalfa grow! So we are able to reduce tillage to zero on some of our fields occasionally, but we use both clover and alfalfa as green manure crops, not cash crops. If you follow me on Facebook, you already know my land is as much an organic research center as it is a farm and we always have several agricultural experiments growing throughout the season, be it in our prairie orchard, our dry land vegetables, or testing different crops in our fields. This year, we added a perennial wheat trial to the list.

But what is perennial wheat? To expound on the general definition of perennial, which means “having a life cycle lasting more than two years,” perennial wheat is a hybrid of annual wheat and wheatgrass that can keep growing back after each harvest and survive the winter in between. The perennial wheat plant itself develops a root system that can go as deep as 10 feet and, lucky for us, grows best in cooler climates. While the head of perennial wheat can produce more seeds than an annual plant, the seeds themselves are considerably smaller, with an overall yield at about 50-70% of an annual wheat harvest. But it’s still a work in progress.

Here on the farm, we planted two small test plots, using a particular variety called Kernza®. Kernza® is one of many varieties of perennial wheat being developed by The Land Institute and Rodale with focuses similar to my own grain experiments including yield and grain quality. Our initial test was to compare row spacing of 14 inches with 24 inches and both did very well. Due to the relatively small size of the plots we hand-pulled the weeds this year and found the yields-per-row were about the same. So the wider spacing provided no additional advantage for overall production. This next year we will continue watching for weed control and yield differences as well as compare the grain quality from each plot.

As a farmer, yield and grain quality are among our top priorities—how much grain can I expect and how much can I contract it for? But there are other concerns, such as incorporating a perennial cash crop into an annual crop rotation, which is something my farm manager and I would need to consider more in-depth should we choose to take our perennial wheat production to a larger scale.

But, as with any crop we grow here on the semi-arid plains of northern Montana, my greatest concern is moisture—water is the biggest challenge with any dry land crop. And this summer truly put this particular concern to the test, with more than three months of consistent high temperatures and no rainfall. However, our perennial wheat plot pulled through and if it can survive a drought season like that, moisture shouldn’t be an issue going forward.

With our first season growing perennial wheat coming to a close, it will be interesting to see how this particular test plot progresses. Next year we will add a perennial legume to the mix, so I’ll be sure to keep you apprised!

World Teachers’ Day 2017

It’s World Teachers’ Day today and, as I promised last year, I’ve chosen another teacher (from many) who had a lasting impact on my life. She was my first grade teacher, Mrs. Fern Giebel.

In 1955, there were 26 students in Big Sandy’s first grade and the majority of us had attended kindergarten together the year before so we were already acquainted. Mrs. Giebel had taught first grade for many years, so as you might expect, she was a kind but stern woman. She was a recognized good teacher, popular with both students and parents. She provided a fun but organized classroom experience with many projects and learning activities that I still remember more than 60 years later. I liked her very much.

I generally enjoyed school and, during these formative years, I learned some significant lessons. One particularly powerful lesson had a substantial impact on my thinking for the rest of my life. My first grade year in school was nearing its end and we had just finished reading through our Dick and Jane reader—remember those?—in our little reading groups of 10 or so. Mrs. Giebel asked the class which story from the reader we would like to read again. There were two or three clear favorites among my group but mine was not in the majority. When my friends, who had chosen the same story as I, started to change their vote to the popular opinion, I was soon left as the only one in favor of my original selection. I didn’t change my vote and, of course, we didn’t read my favorite story that day, but as the group prepared to read the most popular story, Mrs. Giebel turned to me in a private moment and said, “Good for you, Bob, for sticking with your choice when all the others went with the majority.” It wasn’t part of her study plan but that one moment had more effect on me than anything that could have come from any curriculum. That one comment was a huge reinforcement to me, even as a young 7-year-old boy, to always stand by what I believe, even if I might stand alone.

Since that day all those years ago, I have had many experiences of standing alone or being outnumbered throughout my life as I chose paths often “less traveled.” But the reinforcement I received as an impressionable young first-grader, to stand for what I believe, even if I may stand alone, has aided me throughout my life. I am so grateful for an outstanding teacher who took just a moment to teach me such a monumental lesson. Here’s to you, Mrs. Giebel—thank you!

‘Til the Cows Come Home

Over 30 years ago, when I added a flour mill to our Montana Flour & Grains business and started traveling during the winter to attend food shows and visit customers, I reluctantly made the decision to sell our cattle and rent our pastures to the neighbors. At the time, we had no hired help during the winter and my wife was not interested in caring for the cows during the cold winter days while I was traveling. So, for the first time since my grandfather started our farm in 1920, Quinn Farm & Ranch no longer maintained cattle. That was 32 years ago and a year prior to my conversion to organic. Now, as an organic farmer of more than three decades with a better appreciation for the important roles that large animals can play in organic systems, we reintroduced cattle into our organic operation.

Bringing cows back to the farm this summer would not have been possible without Chad, who came to work for us from a large cattle ranch in Geraldine, Montana. He not only had the ability and experience to handle them but he also has a great interest in building a herd of his own. I was very supportive of his interest because I know that cows, and livestock in general, provide a number of valuable components to an organic operation. Perhaps the most obvious is soil fertility with manure. But there’s also weed management with grazing. And we hope to reduce, if not eliminate, volunteer growth as well as reduce tillage which leaves more stubble to lessen erosion and hold moisture.

Rather than start with the huge overhead investment of purchasing a cow herd outright, Chad worked with a couple local ranchers who let us “rent” several pairs (mothers and their calves) to come graze on our farm for the summer on shares, which means we split the profits. Initially we had discussed getting ten pairs from a friend of Chad’s in Geraldine but another opportunity bumped that number to 60 pairs when they arrived in early June.

In between a busy spring planting season, which included a special multi-species cover crop just for the incoming herd, Seth and Chad repaired fencing and built a corral down in a nearby coulee where we used to calve our mother cows early each spring. Since we’re out on the dry open plains of northern Montana, we also had to make arrangements to provide clean drinking water.

What we didn’t, and couldn’t, plan for was the drought. Shortly after the cows arrived in June we saw one last rainfall until the middle of September. Long weeks of record-high heat made the cows irritable and the special multi-species cover crop we’d planted didn’t grow like we’d hoped, though it did provide a few extra weeks of forage before we had to move them. And as any cattle rancher can attest to, fencing makes all the difference. Despite Seth and Chad’s dedicated repair work, there were several instances over the summer where Chad and Seth, and even my son-in-law, Andrew, from The Oil Barn®, had to go cow wrangling. As a result, most of the cows had to be returned earlier than anticipated.

As with any experiment, especially in regards to nature, the first time is rarely a roaring success. We plan to try again next summer with a few new ideas and a lot more prayers for moisture in the interim.

Quinn Farm & Ranch Garden Salad with Homemade Safflower Vinaigrette

Salads are not only a great way to get in some tasty fresh veggies, but they make for a light, satisfying meal on a hot day. With fall just around the corner, our hot days are coming to an end (we hope, after such a hot, dry summer). And while many of our garden vegetables will keep through the winter, nothing beats a fresh, straight-from-the-garden salad. Here on the farm, our garden produces a variety of delicious vegetables throughout the season, many of which make excellent salad fixings! Give this quick and easy recipe a go and let me know what you think.

Salad

1 head loose-leaf lettuce
1 tomato
1/4 purple or red onion
1/2 cucumber
3 radishes (if your radishes are gone, we extend our radish season using the seed pods of the rat-tailed radish)
1 bell pepper
1 carrot
1-2 Tablespoons fresh chopped parsley (optional)
Salt
Pepper

Chop or tear lettuce leaves into bite-sized pieces. Fill a bowl with cool water and place leaves inside, gently moving the leaves to dislodge any dirt. Remove from the water to spin or dab dry. Cut the tomato into wedges. Slice the purple onion into thin rings, using your fingers to gently separate. Wash and slice the cucumber and radishes, making sure the slices are thin. Cut the bell pepper into thin strips.

In a large bowl, combine the lettuce leaves, tomato wedges, onion, and cucumber slices. Grate the carrot over the top and add the parsley for a fresh, flavorful variation. Sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste and toss until all the vegetables are evenly dispersed.

Top with my favorite homemade vinaigrette using our high-oleic safflower oil from The Oil Barn® and enjoy!

The Oil Barn® Safflower Vinaigrette

4 Tablespoons The Oil Barn® safflower oil
2 Tablespoons vinegar
2 Tablespoons water

Old-Fashioned Service Berry Pie with KAMUT® Wheat Crust

What better way to enjoy the summer than with a homemade Service berry pie? Though, you may call them June berries, or even Saskatoon berries. Whatever you call them, they are the first berry bush to ripen each season here on the farm and this was my first pie-making experience! It only took a few adjustments—and about 3 pies—to get the KAMUT® wheat crust and berry filling just right. Service berries are notoriously dry and I found that adding water and cooking them improved the pie greatly. In the end, I produced a delicious farm-to-table treat! So if you enjoy a tasty berry pie, this one comes highly recommended from me to you. And now that summer is winding down (already!), I may just try my hand at an apple pie to finish off the season. Keep an eye out for my favorite apple pie recipe in the near future!

Crust

1 1/2 cups KAMUT® grain, finely ground
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup water
1 cup shortening

Combine flour and salt. Take out 1/3 cup of the flour and salt mixture and add the water to create a paste. Set aside. Cut shortening into the remaining flour and salt combination until pea size. Add paste mixture. Knead lightly.

Filling

4 cups Service berries
1 1/4 cups water
1/2 cup of white sugar
1 teaspoon extra white sugar
2 1/2 tablespoons cornstarch
1 egg

In a medium saucepan, combine berries, water, sugar and cornstarch and slowly bring the mixture to a boil. Place bottom crust into the pie plate. Pour hot berry mixture into the pie plate and cover with crust. Brush pie crust with part of a beaten egg, then sprinkle sugar on top.

Bake for 15 minutes at 425 degrees on the lowest oven rack. Then, lower the temperature to 350 degrees and bake for 35-50 minutes more, or until the pie crust is browned all over the top. Cover with foil the last 15 minutes or so to prevent the crust from getting too dark. Remove from the oven and place on a rack to cool. Enjoy warm with a scoop of your favorite vanilla ice cream!