‘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 So, for the first time since my grandfather started our farm in 1920, Quinn Farm & Ranch no longer maintained cattle.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!

Folks on the Farm: David Archey

Tell us a little about yourself.

My name is David Archey. My family and I just recently moved to Big Sandy from Arizona. I am married and the father of two beautiful children.

What is your position on the farm?

I am the mechanic. I am responsible for the service and repair of all the farm equipment. No small task, but I enjoy the challenge and the wide-open spaces of northern Montana. Oh, and when needed, I help run equipment with Seth and Chad as well.

How did you become aware of Bob Quinn?

I had applied for the position of a diesel mechanic for another organic farmer near Havre. The position had been already filled at the time but they passed my information onto Bob, and here we are!

What’s your favorite part of your job, so far?

I thoroughly enjoy the people I work for and with. Also, every day is different and never tedious—there is always something to do and learn.

What sort of changes or additions would you like to make in your current position, and why?

I hope to set up a more efficient and detailed service plan for the various machines on the farm in order to keep them running better and less need for repairs.

What goals do you hope to help Bob achieve in your work?

I want to help Bob achieve a quicker and improved harvest yield by having well-maintained, dependable machinery.

So where are you originally from?

I am originally from Tucson, Arizona but my family and I have spent the last few years living in Texas and Oklahoma.

Did you grow up on a farm?

I did not grow up on a farm. My wife, however, has an extensive background in agriculture and introduced me to it. I made the switch to working on farming equipment when we moved to Texas so my wife could continue college.

What sort of qualifications or education was required for your position?

An extensive background in diesel mechanics both in and out of a classroom.

Do you feel like your schooling has helped with your position?

Definitely! I went to school to become a diesel mechanic and although I specialized in a different type of machines, the basics were there and it gave me something to grow from.

What do you enjoy about working for Bob?

I really enjoy the work atmosphere. Bob is truly a one-of-a-kind man that, even though he is the boss, he treats you as if you’re family rather than just an employee. He is full of knowledge and never hesitates to share it.

Were you familiar with organic farming before working for Bob?

No. My agriculture background consisted mainly of crops used for livestock consumption.

Would you encourage your children to be organic farmers?

I would be happy with whatever my children choose to become but I would definitely encourage organic farming. No matter what changed may come in the future, people will always need to eat and the awareness of and demand for organic goods is continuously growing. That said, both of my kids have a great interest in livestock, so raising organic livestock may be their future.

In conclusion, has working on an organic farm changed your perceptions about farming and food supply?

Absolutely! It has given me a greater appreciation for the organic industry and is much more involved than I had known it to be.

The Three Sisters: Testing an Old Native American Tradition on Dry Land

The “Three Sisters” is a reference to the old Native American tradition of growing corn, pole beans and squash in the same plot or space. Each of these three crops help each other: The corn provides a structure for the pole beans to climb, so there was no need for poles. The beans provide nitrogen to the soil that the other plants can use. The squash vines spread out and shade the ground, helping to prevent the establishment of weeds. The squash leaves also act as a “living mulch,” which create a microclimate to conserve moisture in the soil. And the prickly hairs of the squash vines deter pests such as raccoons because they do not like to step on them. Coincidentally, corn, beans, and squash contain all eight essential amino acids, providing a complete protein when these plants are eaten together.

I do not know how far west into the Northern Great Plains these plants were grown but this was certainly a common practice east of the Mississippi, throughout the Midwest and as far west as the Mandan villages of central North Dakota along the Missouri River. Even though there is not much evidence that the Plains Indians, which inhabited our area in North Central Montana, grew these crops, I thought it would be interesting to try them out this summer. We see teepee rings on our land so I know the Native Americans lived here from time to time.

When it came time to plant, my main concern was that each plant would have enough room to gather water for itself without irrigation. We normally allow 54 square feet for each hill of 2 squash plants in our dry land production. Whereas the corn is allowed about 500 square inches per plant. In both cases this is about a third of the plant population recommended for irrigated fields or fields in the Midwest where they get about 3-times as much rain as we do. This means each hill of squash is about 88 inches from the next one on a grid and each corn plant is about 21 inches from each other. Because these plants were planted together, including the beans around the corn, I gave them a little more room than if I were planting them by themselves. The squash was planted on a grid every 93 inches with the corn in between on a grid of its own every 31 inches. The beans were a mixture of bush beans and pole beans, which I planted in combination from 0 to 4 beans around each corn plant. The beans were not planted until the corn was 6 inches high—about the middle of June. Unfortunately, we had no rainfall after the beans were planted and although most of them came up, they did not produce beans, nor did the pole beans climb up the corn. The corn and squash were planted on the 20th of May and they both produced adequate crops, despite the lack of water. The corn was divided into modern and heirloom Indian corn and for some reason, the modern sweet corn did not come up at all whereas the Indian corn came up uniformly.

Even though we have not harvested yet, we can already see that the corn and squash did not compete against one another too much for moisture and we cannot say anything about the beans because they did so poorly. That said, it was an interesting experiment even though the results were quite mixed. I would have planted the beans a week earlier, just before the last rain, if I had known it was going to be our last. In our area, maybe planting the beans when the corn is only 3 inches high would be better. Maybe I will try that next year.

A Farmer’s Look at Nitrogen

I’ve been a farmer all my life and an organic farmer for more than thirty years. Agriculture is as much about routine as it is about knowledge and innovation. Maybe it’s just the molecular biologist in me, but in my opinion, a farmer who simply goes through the motions of seeding and harvest and everyday maintenance is missing the opportunity to learn about his land and take advantage of its potential. So if you look out the window at your fields or your garden, what do you see? Do you see dirt and plants and bugs? Or do you see a healthy, nutrient-hardy soil and the ecosystem it supports? Let’s get specific, what is it that makes a healthy, nutrient-hardy soil? There are probably as many answers to that as the climates they flourish in. So more specific, what makes those answers successful? Nitrogen.

Nitrogen plays an enormous and necessary part in both agriculture and in life. Basic organic practices make use of nature’s methods in producing nitrogen, such as diversified crop rotations which especially include legumes and pulse crops rather than applying expensive, synthetic, and often questionable, additives.

But what is nitrogen? Why is it so important? At the risk of sounding like your sixth-grade science teacher, nitrogen is an element essential in creating a number of plant-necessities, including proteins, which are one of the building blocks of life. But nitrogen by itself doesn’t do much; it requires other elements—like oxygen and hydrogen—to become accessible to the plants in your garden, as ammonium and nitrates. Whether you’re a hobby gardener or a fourth-generation farmer like me, these are two words you’ve likely heard before. They show up in most every type of fertilizer and, organically, can be developed using animal manure, compost or legumes.

For those more familiar with chemical fertilizers, legumes may appear out of place in this list of nitrogen fertilizer options, so let me explain. Legumes are often used in organic crop rotations—they are in ours—because legumes have the distinct ability to interact with the nitrogen-fixing bacteria in the soil and create nodules of nitrogen on the roots that the plants can use. So the bacteria fixes nitrogen for the plant and the plant provides an environment for the bacteria in a classic symbiotic relationship between organisms. This is the reason we grow both spring and winter peas, clover, alfalfa and sometimes lentils here on the farm and till them into the soil to provide for the continued development and availability of nitrogen for the next crop.

The fixed nitrogen, in the form of nitrates, are the most active and useful for plants. Nitrates combine with other chemicals within the plant to produce things like enzymes, chlorophyll and proteins. Some of these proteins become part of the stored proteins in grain, which is why nitrogen is particularly important on our farm with our high-protein KAMUT® wheat.

With a better understanding of nitrogen’s vital role in agriculture, it’s important to know that a very large percentage of the nitrogen in the soil is lost. Nitrogen can be lost from the soil in several ways, such as, immobilization, which is when nitrogen is tied up by microorganisms in the soil or plant material. It is also very soluble in water and can be carried out of the soil by leaching or flooding. For these reasons, we keep a close eye on our soil’s nitrogen levels and adjust our crop rotations as necessary to accommodate.

The continual opportunity to learn, both how to adapt and improve, is one of countless reasons my conversion to organic was both on the farm and in my life as a whole. Organic farming encourages more than just cultivating crops, it encourages understanding, invention and education.