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!

Folks on the Farm: Drew Shanafelt

Tell us a little about yourself.

I was born and raised in Olympia, WA. I love playing almost every sport, though ultimate Frisbee and ice hockey are my favorites. This summer I met Bob and a few months later, moved to Big Sandy with my girlfriend Shae and our dog and two cats, to work for The Oil Barn®. Shae studied English education and is the high school English teacher here in Big Sandy. My passion is to improve the relationship between humans and the environment through improving our food system.

What is your position here in Big Sandy, Montana?

I am the General Manager of The Oil Barn®.

What are your overall responsibilities?

I am tasked with everything that is needed to run the business. Four months in, I am still learning what all is included in my responsibilities. In general, I do the books, sales, marketing, production planning, process improvement, maintenance, deliveries, and actually producing and packing the oil.

How did you become aware of Bob Quinn?

I become aware of Bob through my old neighbor, Bruce Maxwell. He was outside shoveling snow one day and I struck up a conversation with him. I told him I had just read a book; Lentil Underground, and he told me had helped Liz with the book. Then he told me about a new book she was working on with a guy named Bob Quinn, called Grain by Grain. I preordered the book, read it, and then met Bob for the first time at his book talk at MSU in Bozeman.

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

I love to learn new things. In this job, I have had to learn something new every day since I started. It is exciting to get to work in the morning and know that it is not going to be the same as yesterday, and I can learn and grow with the business.

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

I would love to grow The Oil Barn® by adding new products and services to provide more jobs in Big Sandy. In my education I learned a lot about continuous improvement, which I hope to apply to the operations here at The Oil Barn®.

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

I graduated Montana State University with a BS in industrial and management systems engineering. Throughout my education I was taught to use a systems approach to solving problems and designing systems. I would like to apply that perspective to Bob’s goals. In doing so I hope to help bring about a healthier food system for the planet and people. By doing so, helping Bob with another one of his goals; create many, local, well-paying jobs.

What do you enjoy about working for Bob?

Bob always encourages creative thinking/problem solving. It is very enjoyable to bounce ideas off Bob because he is very experienced in entrepreneurship and loves a fresh, creative idea.

Were you familiar with organic farming before working for Bob?

I was made aware of organic farming through a number of books, including One Straw Revolution by Masanobu Fukuoka, Second Nature by Michael Pollan and Lentil Underground by Liz Carlisle. All of these books taught me about organic farming and led me to Grain by Grain and to Bob.

What are your thoughts on organic farming?

I think regenerative organic farming is an imperative step to create an equitable food system. A food system built on regenerative organic practices with a focus on offering local season food to eaters has innumerable benefits—fair wages for farmers, regeneration of our soils, carbon sequestration, healthy food, reduced chronic disease, stronger local economies and communities, and it will create a closer relationship between consumers and their food. These areas of benefit are all current detriments to our existing food system, and I hope to help people see the need to transition and help provide an easy path to do so.

In conclusion, has working with organic farmers changed your perceptions about farming and food supply?

Absolutely. I can’t think of a more worthy cause to which to dedicate my time. Food is often overlooked. I know because, to me, food used to be an afterthought. Now that I work with farmers in the food system, I see how important it all is. As an essential part of being alive, healthy food should be a priority to everyone due to the vast implications food has on our lives.

Thanksgiving with Uncle Joe—In Loving Memory

Thanksgiving is a time for family gatherings. And this year, the week around Thanksgiving was a busy one. Early in the week, the same day I was returning from a trip overseas, my mother, who recently turned 96, went into surgery after a fall. My plans to join my wife and immediate family in Wyoming for Thanksgiving changed so I could stay in Great Falls with my mother and sister. Then I received the call that my Uncle Joe had passed away.

Years ago when my sister and I were growing up, our family made the 500-mile drive from Big Sandy, Montana to Spokane, Washington for several years to celebrate Thanksgiving with our Uncle Joe and his family. These were the days before the interstates and travelling through the mountains between Montana and Washington was not the quick trip it is today. But this year I found myself returning to Spokane for Thanksgiving once again.

Joe M. Quinn was just short of his 94th birthday and his 70th wedding anniversary—same as my dad when he passed away a few years back. Joe was my father’s only brother and they were the best of friends all through their lives. Uncle Joe was an amazing man of many talents, incredible energy, and admirable dedication and integrity.

My mother’s surgery went well and I stayed with her and my sister in Great Falls until Thanksgiving morning before hopping in my car to make the familiar drive over the mountains and through the woods to Spokane. I arrived in time to join my uncle’s family for the very end of Thanksgiving dinner. It was a bittersweet reunion, as all funerals tend to be.

The following day we bid a final farewell to my Uncle Joe at his graveside service. I had brought the flag that had covered my grandfather’s casket in 1993 as well as my father’s over two decades later and now we used it to honor my Uncle Joe—all three men were veterans of the first and second World Wars. We concluded the service with a red rose on the casket (a favorite of my Uncle Joe and Aunt Doris) as a token of our love and appreciation for a man who had been a brother, son, soldier, husband, father, grandfather, great-grandfather, uncle and friend. And we are all blessed with countless wonderful memories of a long life well-lived.

The following evening we gathered at the Davenport Hotel in downtown Spokane, as part of my Uncle Joe’s request, where we reminisced and enjoyed time together.

It is always hard to say goodbye—I prefer the German term of parting “auf wiedersehen”—which, when literally translated, means “until we see each other again.” But it is always a blessing to be surrounded by the love and support of family to ease the sorrow by sharing that burden with those who care. So as we press forward into another Christmas season and the joy and happiness that brings, I hope we all will also remember the One who shares all our burdens and that without Easter there would be no Christmas. Because of these two great events we commemorate now and in the springtime, the hope and promise of “auf wiedersehen” has been giving to all of us.

Knowledge is Power: A Conversation with Glyphosate

On a flight from San Jose to Seattle earlier this year, I had the unexpected opportunity to chat with a lady whose father helped invent glyphosate for Monsanto. It really is a small world, folks! What started out as an ironic seating arrangement turned into a very interesting conversation. As you might expect, she was not a proponent for organic anything so I asked her to give me a list of the top five reasons she remained unconvinced organic was the future. This is what she said:

  1. The popularity and economic growth of organic food is due to clever and extensive marketing.
  2. Organic farmers don’t get any more from the sales of organic food than non-organic farmers get for the sales of non-organic food.
  3. There is no proof that organic food is better for you.
  4. The majority of food recalls are organic foods that are contaminated by animal manure being used in the fields, making organic unsafe. (She works as a food safety adviser and she did later admit that some of those recalls were due to mislabeling.)
  5. And, of course, the higher cost of organic foods and products.

The flight was a relatively short one and we had a good conversation, parting in Seattle as friends. Though, admittedly, I did suggest she might enjoy my book. 😉 But from my perspective, this conversation wasn’t about right or wrong, it wasn’t even really about organic versus chemical. This conversation was about knowledge.

Our conversation could have, very easily, escalated into a debate. I could have argued that chemical agriculture has had almost three-quarters of a century of their own clever and extensive marketing to build their own popularity and economic growth using ad campaigns those of us in the organic movement can only dream about. I could have insisted that, as an organic farmer who has long since paid off my farm loans since converting to organic, that we can, in fact, see more profit with our organic systems than non-organic farmers. I could have mentioned the recent questions connecting glyphosate and cancer. And I have a whole series of essays on my thoughts regarding the high cost of cheap food!

But as I’ve considered this conversation over the last few months, I realized that these five points of organic skepticism likely represent the opinions of a lot of the people in our country who do not know the whole story of organic, sustainable agriculture or understand the value of organic food. As someone who has been an advocate for organic for over 30 years, I can sometimes forget that not everyone has had the experiences I’ve had and knows what I know.

This conversation reinforced why I wrote my book, Grain by Grain. It’s why I’ve written essays, blogs and articles and appeared in countless podcasts and interviews. It’s why my company, Kamut International, supports organic research and funds informative media, like Ancient Grain for Future Farming. Knowledge. The more we can educate and inspire the folks around us—our friends and families and neighbors—the smaller this list of organic uncertainties will become and the more voices we gain in support of a sustainable, organic future.

I take my hat off in sincere appreciation to all of you who share my belief in the importance of the organic movement. Thank you for supporting organic in the grocery stores and at the farmer’s markets. Thank you to the folks who tirelessly endorse the necessity for change—organic is the future! It’s the only sustainable future for the health of our soils, our food, our earth and our people. Thank you all!

Our Health Pays the High Cost for Cheap Food

bob quinn in montana field

The final part of my High Cost of Cheap Food series is really the most important—the high cost to our health. Our health has an enormous impact on our lives and the well-being of our families. And all these indirect costs of cheap food—to the farmers, to rural communities and small businesses, and to the planet—add up to more than we would like to admit.

Did you know that, according to the US Bureau of Labor and Statistics, the cost to American households for food has declined 60% since 1941? Not a bad thing when considering the family budget. But during the same time period, the cost of health care has increased by, you guessed it, 60%! All that savings from lower food costs is swallowed up by health care, starting at the doctor’s office! And nobody likes piles of medical bills, so folks are demanding government assistance, which means higher taxes.

The bulk of increasing health care expenses, especially regarding chronic disease, is the result of the changes we have made in our food production and processing systems. We’ve succeeded in making food cheap and plentiful, but our health is the cost. It’s quite the paradox! There’s a lot of profit in cheap food and health care. The ag chemical cartels make billions off the industrialized agriculture they promote. And big pharma makes billions off the pills they sell which usually only treat symptoms.

The list of evidence that connects poor health and chemical contamination to our food and environment is growing. Everyday we learn more about the connection between chemical exposure to not only cancer, but autism and countless other auto-immune diseases. Research studies coming out of Canada suggest some gluten sensitivity symptoms are actually due to the elevated levels of glyphosate—designated a “probably carcinogen” by the World Health Organization—in the grain.

We’re not paying the whole price of our cheap, industrial-produced food at the check-out counter, we’re paying for it later—sometimes years later. We’re paying at the doctor’s office, the hospital, and the pharmacy. We’re paying through the loss of work days and quality of life. If all these costs were paid-in-full at the grocery store, how many of us would truly put that “cheap food” in our baskets, let alone be able to afford it all upfront?

So what if we focus more on the food we eat again? As Hippocrates very wisely said, “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” Change starts first with us. We choose what we put into our bodies, what we feed to our families. We have that control. And we have that choice—more than 5% of the foods at your local market are organic! And at the current growth rate of 10% a year (which is actually less than the past several years) we have the potential to reach 100% in about 30 years. Imagine it! No more pesticides or herbicides or other questionable chemicals filling the shelves, just cleaner, healthier food.

I stepped into the world of organic in the mid 80’s when organic options in the supermarkets were available almost nowhere. And now, 30 years later, you can find organic in every store! That was the work of one generation. So my challenge to the next generation is to walk through the door we opened and reintroduce the world to healthy, flavorful eating. If you look at it as a two-generation project, we’re already halfway there!

My new challenge to America is to be CHEMICAL FREE BY ’43!

By replacing chemical agriculture with regenerative organic agriculture and artificially low-priced, low-value food with fair-priced, high nutrition, high-value food, we can resolve the paradox of the “high cost of cheap food”:

  1. The economic failure of farms and farmers;
  2. The decline of rural communities and small businesses;
  3. The pollution of our planet;
  4. And the chronic disease tied to poor diets and poor food.

I invite you all to be a part of this solution, to be a part of this change, and put one more organic item in your basket each time you shop. Your farmers, your communities, your environment, and your body will thank you.

Your friend,