Looking Back Grain by Grain: A Successful Book Tour

It has been a year and a half since Liz Carlisle and I started on our great adventure called “book tour.” Since bookstores and publishers no longer sponsor authors on book tours, this venture was something we financed ourselves. That said, our publisher and many book stores were a great help to us with logistics and connections. For the first 3 to 4 months we followed Liz’s game plan for her first book, but were run ragged scheduling most of what she had done in a year into the semester she had taken off from her lectures at Stanford. Her help was invaluable as she coached me, set up the schedule and made most all of the contacts.

We started in California at her alma mater of UC Berkley the last week of February 2019. The next week we were at Expo West in Anaheim and then we were off to UC Davis, my alma mater. We spent a week in northern California making a lot of university stops and a week in southern California as guests of Patagonia as we spoke at a whole string of their stores. We spent 2 weeks in Montana, the better part of another 2 weeks in the Northwest and then a week in the Midwest going from Minneapolis through Iowa to Chicago. After that whirlwind, we started splitting up. Liz changed jobs and is now at UC San Diego creating a whole new program and loving it. She joined me when possible as I continued to do radio and TV interviews and visit book stores, libraries, universities, town halls, and community centers and speak at conferences all over the country. I had a few weeks off in August and a few weeks off in December but other than that, I was going somewhere almost every week until the end of February 2020. It was a great experience! I made lots of new friends and met up with many old ones.

My last event, at Expo West in Anaheim the first week of March, was canceled an hour before my plane landed in California. I was just thankful we were at the end of the tour and not the beginning when everything began to shut down. There were so many highlights throughout the year that I could not cover them all with this short summary. I will tell you, however, that sitting down for a discussion with college classes who had read the book were my favorite events. And there were two experiences that were like capstones of my tour for me.

The first occurred at the Montana Farm Bureau summer meeting in Bozeman. After my presentation, an older gentleman came up to my table where I was selling my books and said rather gruffly, “Well, I don’t really give a [care] 😉 about all this organic stuff, but I see what you are talking about all around me [farmers going broke with high input costs and low commodity prices, the decline of our rural communities and in our health] and I want to buy your book.” As I sold him a book, the thrill of realization went through me: this was exactly the kind of person I wrote the book for! Folks who saw things were not going in the right direction but had no idea why things were going wrong or where and how to start to change it.

The second experience occurred near the end of our tour at Washington State University in Pullman. After I spoke, the daughter of my neighbor and close friend came up to me. “I read your book,” she started. “It made me angry.” As I regrouped my thoughts from that surprise comment, she went on. “The doctors treating my dad’s brain cancer asked what his occupation was and then asked about the chemicals he was using on his farm. When they were told, they said to my mother very matter-of-factly, ‘Well, that is no surprise. We see way too much of this kind of cancer coming from folks with similar backgrounds.’” She then said, “Maybe if we had had such a book as yours earlier, my father would still be alive.” Even though her statement struck me to the very core and caused me to weep inside and out, I was grateful for all the hours and efforts I had gone through to write the book. If it can save even one family from the heartbreak of losing a loved one to cancer and hasten the day we grow all our food without poison, it will have all been worth it.

I cannot close without another heartfelt thank you to my co-author, Liz Carlisle, without whose help this book would have never been possible. And, of course, a huge thank you to all of my family, friends, readers, and to you, for your interest and support.

Regenerative Organic

The last speech of my book tour for Grain by Grain was scheduled to take place at the Climate Change Conference immediately prior to Expo West in Anaheim this past March. As our plane landed in Orange County the day before the conference and folks around me started checking their cell phones, the exclamations started immediately: “They just canceled the Expo!” I could not believe it so I checked my email and there it was, the official announcement of the cancelation of all events for the week had just been sent out an hour before we landed. My new manager of The Oil Barn operation, Drew Shanafelt, was with me on the plane and I was taking him to show him the ropes at Expo. We checked into our hotel, which was nearly empty, and went to a nice restaurant, which was also nearly empty. The folks at the restaurant were wondering what they were going to do with the week’s food that had just been delivered in anticipation of sellout crowds from the Expo. We also had to regroup and make new plans. We were able to visit a couple potential customers the next day and then went to the beach before heading home the following morning.

The talk I was planning to give was about regenerative agriculture—a big buzzword right now—and, in many circles is equated with no-till. No-till (or not disturbing the soil during the production of crops) has become a new gold standard, touted as superior to any other system of farming. I have heard many new converts speak of no-till as if it is the end-all of farming systems and so much better than organic agriculture. Many of them don’t bother mentioning they still depend on Round-up (glyphosate) and other chemical pesticides to make no-till work on their farms. I share their dream and goal of being regenerative on our farm and using less tillage. I have farmed organically for over 30 years without using inputs because we were able to grow our own, such as nitrogen which is supplied by our green manure cover crops and helps to regenerate the soil each year they are planted. We plant them every second year and till them to nourish and feed the life in the soil rather than harvest and haul the seed or forage off the field as a cash crop. This also nourished the cash crop which alternates every other year with the cover crop.

We did not use the term regenerative 30 years ago. We called it sustainable because by doing what we were doing, we could continue to farm in this manner far into the future without degrading the soil or the life in it. We found it was also regenerative because we could see that we were improving soil tilth and organic matter and by using complex rotations we were also able to manage weeds, diseases and insects. I have been able to reduce tillage on our farm. I have tried several no-till systems over the years without success but I continue to try new ideas.

There are “organic” farmers who are developing systems that stretch the letter of organic and even ignore some of the original rules, coming nowhere close to the spirit of what organic agriculture was based on in the first place. This has led to a lot of frustration in the organic community and spurred the interest in regenerative ag.

To me, regenerative agriculture that is not organic is just as incomplete as organic that is not regenerative. I am thrilled when farmers convert to regenerative techniques, but if they don’t continue to progress past the use of herbicides and pesticides, I think they are selling themselves short of reaching the ultimate goal. On the other hand, I have just as much frustration with those who come into organic agriculture with the idea that they can just substitute organic inputs for chemical inputs without considering the central role that the soil plays in the production of their crops. They are substituting industrial chemical production for industrial organic production. I believe they are missing the mark and not reaching all the possibilities that organic ag has to offer in regenerating farms, communities, our environment and our health.

For the best effect, I believe it is necessary to combine the two concepts of regenerative and organic—“regenerative organic.” By combining these terms, there is no misunderstanding. I appreciate very much the work of the Rodale Institute and their continued success with organic no-till on their farm in Pennsylvania. They have taken this concept one more step and are now offering a certification that guarantees buyers that products labeled as regenerative are also organic and products labeled as organic are also regenerative. This is what you can do with a regenerative organic certification program. They are leading the way and there are many interested in following.

Centennial Farm: 100 Years of Quinn Farm & Ranch

One hundred years ago, on June 12th, my grandfather Emmet Quinn married Alice McAnelly in Fort Benton. The newlyweds moved to a small wheat and cattle ranch bordering the McAnelly place. It was a 320-acre parcel originally homesteaded by John Russell in 1916, but by 1920 he was gone and so began Quinn Farm & Ranch on Little Sandy Creek about 10 miles southeast of Big Sandy, Montana. They raised two boys and expanded the place to nearly 1,500 acres by the time Emmet retired in 1948. He had about 50 head of polled Herford cattle and a smaller portion of the ranch was farmed. He was an innovator and one of the first in the neighborhood to buy a new pull-type combine and small tractor that ran on tracks rather than wheels. This put an end to his participation in a long harvest with many of the neighbors using a stationary thrashing machine that was moved from farm to farm, requiring a big crew of men. He raised mostly wheat and barley. He was also one of the first in the area to buy a radio in 1925 just after the first radio station in Montana went up in nearby Havre.

My father Mack and his brother Joe, took over the ranch in 1948. In a couple years Joe left for a very successful career with the Federal Land Bank. My sister and I were raised on the ranch, which had expanded to 2,400 acres by the mid 1950’s. In the early 1950’s Dad was one of the first to adopt herbicides and start experimenting with chemical fertilizers. He was always trying new crops and increased the acres farmed by braking sod to the point that the place was half cultivated and half in pasture. He was one of the first to get a TV set in the fall of 1954 soon after the KFBB-TV station, the first in Montana, was built in Great Falls.

I returned to the home place in 1978 and farmed with my father for about 8 years before he officially retired. I raised my family there and started converting the farm to organic in 1986. We used our last chemical on the farm in 1988 and will soon have been farming using a regenerative organic system as long as we were farming using man-made chemicals following the industrial model. In 1986 we introduced an ancient khorasan wheat using the KAMUT trademark to the organic market and started growing it on our farm. After 40 years of farming myself, I decided to rent our farm to a couple of my employees and downsized my farming activity from 4,000 to 4 acres which surrounds the homestead. On those four acres, I grow almost all my own food and continue some experiments.

My grandparent’s direct descendants now number about 41 spanning 5 generations and when you add all the spouses and fiancés, we are up to about 60. Out of those, only Dad and Uncle Joe have passed away. It was our hope to gather as many of the 58 remaining relations as possible to celebrate the 100 anniversary of the founding of our farm and ranch. We first scheduled it for the 100th year of my grandparent’s wedding anniversary on June the 12th. But as shut downs and uncertainty multiplied we postponed it until Labor Day weekend. And now, because things are not improved, we have moved the celebration again to June 12 of 2021. My sister and I got together on June 12th this year to mark the occasion but our big get-together will now be celebrating 101 years of Quinn Farm & Ranch next year.

First International Conference of Wheat Landraces for Healthy Food Systems

Updated July 8, 2020—

click here to view article

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 June 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.

If you’re interested in continuing the work started at this First International Conference of Wheat Landraces, I encourage you to visit their website and get involved. You can also click the following link to watch more presentations from the conference:

click here to view article

Mongolia: Amazed and Inspired

This past fall I had the incredible opportunity to visit the far-off country of Mongolia for the first time. I had visited its closest neighbors, Kazakhstan, Russia, and China, but I couldn’t turn down my son, Adam’s, invitation to accompany him. This was Adam’s second trip to Mongolia with his major professor, Dr. Taylor, as part of a Deseret Charities project to aid the country with food safety and preservation. And when my son’s group discovered that Mongolia’s national policy was to promote organic agriculture, I was invited to accompany them.

Growing up, I recall history lessons about Mongolia, which had once conquered much of the known world at the time. And, even centuries later, the country’s culture and traditions reflect that diverse background. What I hadn’t expected were the similarities between this ages-old country and the hi-line area in Montana where I have lived most of my life.

Mongolia sits at the same latitude as Montana and much of the country looks like the rolling plains and prairie of the hi-line area where I live in northern Montana. So my experience in a similar climate and landscape was my ticket to this fantastic and interesting country. Mongolia is 4-times the size of my home state with 3-times the population, but half of these folks live in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar, which means the countryside is even more sparsely populated that Montana.

From the capital city, we drove north to Darkhan and Suhbaatar, where most of the roads cut across the sod and when the ruts get too deep, vehicles simply shift over a bit to start a new road. With few fences, the open range was dotted with little more than isolated yurts and scattered livestock, making me wonder if this was what Montana had looked like 130 years ago after the ranchers had arrived but before the farmers had taken up their homesteads.

I was particularly surprised to learn that, even though Mongolia now grows enough wheat for their own use, this crop had only been introduced to their country 60 years ago. Now, they are interested in expanding small fruit and vegetable production to decrease their dependency on foreign foods as more people transition from their traditionally meat-based diets. And the best part is most of this new production is organic! While wheat production, for the most part, is not produced organically, they expressed great interest in both converting to organic as well as my soil-building rotations, which make organic possible here in the northern Great Plains.

But, by far, my biggest surprise, and epiphany, came in the office of a vice president of one of the universities we visited. Following the usual introductions, Dr. Taylor asked what their greatest food safety concern was. And without hesitation, this gentleman responded: “The growing rate of cancer in our country.” I was astounded! I had to clarify: “Do you mean you are concerned about possible chemical contamination on your food causing cancer?” When he responded affirmatively, he added, “That is why we have a national policy to promote organic agriculture.”

Folks, I have been promoting organic for most of my adult life. I have shaken hands with enough politicians, university presidents, and food leaders to understand the impact this man, who held such a high-ranking position, and his matter-of-fact statement regarding food safety could have. In my experience, if a person in his position in America were to make such a claim, his job would be forfeit by the next morning. Americans don’t see food as a cause for diseases like cancer and therefore it can’t be a solution either.

To say I was blown away would be an understatement. Here we were, in what most Americans would consider a third-world country—underdeveloped and even backward—and what I found was the courage and vision to make good choices for the future of Mongolia and the health of their people. In America, chemical agriculture and biotech companies rule; it’s advertised, sold and believed to be the future, necessary to feed the world, and anyone who questions this dogma is either dismissed or ridiculed.

What a paradox! While we in America, one of the richest and most powerful countries in the world, keep charging forward supporting the chemical production of cheap food and reaping the result of ever-increasing chronic disease, supposedly backwater countries like Mongolia are building food systems that promote good health for their people and their country. As American’s fortunes and power begin to decline under the ever-increasing cost of health care, Mongolia’s choices will be taking them in the opposite direction. It is my very real belief that if nothing is done to change these directories, our paths of prosperity and health will one day cross. And it will be Americans who will be looking up to our Mongolian neighbors.

A New Year—Looking Back & Moving Forward

Here we are, not only at the beginning of a brand new year, but also a brand new decade! It hardly seems possible that we are 20 years into the 21st century. There are full-grown adults with no memory of the Y2K scare at the turn of the century, which is little more than a dim memory. I tell my friends I don’t have time to worry about things that might happen in the future because I’m too busy making plans to improve things in the future.

With 2019 past, I have now moved into the third and final year of my retirement plan. And what a year last year! I was unequivocally blessed to complete a life-long goal of mine with the incredible help of Liz Carlisle, and release my book, Grain by Grain. I spent 41 of the 52 weeks in 2019 traveling on a whirlwind book tour that took me all across our beautiful country, with a few amazing excursions overseas. Including an exotic trip to Mongolia, where I was asked to help grain farmers begin to convert their cropping systems to organic production. Stay tuned for more on about that experience later this month!

As you may have guessed, 2019 was by far, the most traveling I have ever done in one year—and will ever do again! Ha! And while my book tour is not quite over (it will officially end in March—one year from the original publishing date), it has certainly been a pleasure thus far. Grain by Grain is now in its third printing and continues to attract interested readers and favorable comments. I cannot easily express how this makes me feel because hopeful and overjoyed hardly seem sufficient.

In an effort to finish strong and continue to spread the word that regenerative, organic agriculture is the only sustainable, healthy future, we are giving away 2 books each month to followers on my Instagram and Facebook pages! So be sure to follow along and share.

Due to the amount of time devoted to my book tour this last year, a couple of the goals I’d made have been delayed, but certainly not forgotten. Specifically, the subterranean greenhouse I want to establish here on the farm, as well as the creation of an organic research center here in Big Sandy, Montana. I now hope to have both up and running by the end of 2021, with most of my other business responsibilities transferred to the next generation by the end of the first quarter of 2021.

My crop research at home was also reduced following the retirement of my longtime friend and research assistant, Wes Gibbs—he will be sorely missed. I was able to continue my winter hardiness trials of khorasan wheat varieties, which I have now narrowed from the 140 lines I started with to just 28. We had a cool, short summer in 2019, so neither my melons, nor my squash, did very well. And my experiment with various compost applications didn’t do well either. However, our potatoes, onions and apples did very well and we continue to enjoy the spoils even in January. And, very encouragingly, we may have some breakthroughs regarding our glyphosate contamination problem by this time next year.

I continue to see progress with my work regarding the food sovereignty program at the nearby Rocky Boy Indian Reservation, where we successfully planted and cared for a large community garden of potatoes, Indian corn, and pumpkins this past year.

Even if I’m unable to finish all my retirement goals by the end of 2020, there will be a lot to celebrate: I have 2 granddaughters graduating high school. Our son, Adam, will be completing his Masters in food science. And we will be commemorating the 100 year anniversary of our farm with a big family reunion this summer.

Filled with gratitude for the blessings of 2019, we start a new year with faith, promise and hope. A very happy and blessed New Year to you and yours!