This Time a Century Ago: Looking Back and Moving Forward

For me the end of a year is always a good time for reflection. I often remember my Grandfather Quinn quoting the old timers as saying “how good the crops were in ’16 (meaning 1916) and how good they were going to be next year.” They were, by nature, optimistic. 1916 was the high point of the homestead era here in Big Sandy (1911-1919). The town approached a population of 1500! You chuckle, but it’s around 500 today. The farmers had both good crops and good prices that year. Whereas the three years that followed, persistent drought brought bankruptcy to most of the homesteaders, as crops did not return enough to replace the seed that had been planted. Many farming families, completely broke, just left their land with little more than the clothes on their back and a few items they could pack in a wagon or small vehicle. By 1920, when my grandfather arrived, the population of the town had crashed to around 600—about two-thirds of the farmers had left—and farms could be purchased by paying little more than the back taxes on the land.

It is ironic how 100 years later, this area was blessed with higher-than-average rain fall resulting in the best crop our farm has seen in twenty years. Although there were good crops this year for the most part, the big difference between this year and the “boom” of 1916 was the price of wheat. The prices for wheat this year were lower than they had been for the past several years and even with a big crop, many farmers were not able to pay their chemical bills. A silver lining for us, however, was that organic grain prices were sky-high—sometimes 5 times that of non-organic prices! High prices coupled with high yields made for a very prosperous year, indeed, for organic farmers. And even though some of the highest prices have come down some, there is still an ever-increasing demand for organic which keeps the prices strong. While organic farmers now only consist of 1% of the farming population, the sales of organic groceries now exceed 5% of total food sales in the US. It remains the fastest growing segment of agriculture, which is great news for organic farmers and promising news for farmers looking to transition.

So, the question for the future is: Will we see a repeat of the disaster years of 1917 to 1920—when more farmers went broke than in any other time in American history? I certainly hope not! And while we cannot change or control the weather to guarantee timely rains, farmers do have the opportunity to look to the future. The transition to organic production can start now! Organic agriculture immediately reduces input costs and increases the value of production. Many are already making this change and many more are seriously considering it. It is my hope that we will not repeat the hardships of those fateful years a century ago where farmers lose their lands and we lose our friends and neighbors. I hope, as is my hope every year, that we will see more farmers recognize the benefits of organic agriculture and begin to prosper again.

Spiced Apple Cider

An excellent apple harvest is made all the sweeter with a warm mug of home-pressed cider. Not only does it warm a body from the inside out—and given the chilly weather so far this year, that’s definitely a good thing—but it also fills a home with a warm, spicy scent perfect for the holiday season. I hope you enjoy this festive Quinn family favorite as much as we do.

6 cups apple cider
½ teaspoon whole cloves
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
3 cinnamon sticks

In a saucepan, heat ingredients to boiling over medium-high heat. Reduce heat; simmer uncovered 10 minutes.

Before serving, strain cider mixture to remove cloves and cinnamon, if desired. Serve warm.

More Than Dirt: World Soil Day 2016

Soil health is a key component to renewable, organic agricultural practices, which is probably why I keep bringing it up. Farmers, organic or otherwise, instinctively understand at least the basic necessity of soil—without it crops could not grow and farms would more or less cease to exist. But in organic agriculture, we learn that soil is more than just “dirt” or something that holds a plant in place. So, in celebration of World Soil Day, I wanted to share some thoughts and facts about soil perhaps you didn’t know before. Whether you’re a farmer, gardener or just curious about the food you eat and where it comes from, understanding the necessity for healthy soil is a good place to start.

But first, maybe a quick introduction of the observance that inspired today’s post? World Soil Day is a relatively new commemoration to celebrate soil as well as educate folks about the importance of it. It’s certainly a great day for organic farmers to share and promote one of the factors that makes us different from conventional agriculture. But, in reality, we all eat and 95% of that food originates, directly or indirectly, from the soil, so appreciation of healthy soil should be important to everyone.

So, what are the benefits of healthy soil? Let’s start with healthier food! It then follows that healthier food produces healthier people. I believe that Hippocrates had the right of it: “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” And healthy soil dramatically increases the nutritional value of the food we eat. I’ve mentioned this before and we have seen it here on our farm. While conventional agriculture focuses on quantity and cheap food, these higher yields do not have the same nutritional value as crops grown in healthy organic soil. Hence our “cheap” food really comes to us at a very high cost.

Another benefit of healthy soil is biodiversity. Diversity is also another key factor in organic agriculture. Nature has a very specific balance and soil plays a huge part. According to Kathy Merrifield, a retired nematologist at Oregon State University, a teaspoon of healthy soil can support “up to one billion bacteria, several yards of fungal filaments, several thousand protozoa and scores of nematodes.” Soil rich with biodiversity also has greater drought resilience because it’s better able to absorb and store water. And for dry-land farmers like me in the semi-arid climate of north-central Montana, water retention is very important. One main difference between organic and chemical agriculture is organic agriculture focuses on feeding and nourishing the soil which will then feed and nourish the plants grown in it. While chemical agriculture focuses on feeding the plant directly with things like chemically-compounded fertilizers.

These are really just a couple benefits of healthy soil and why I believe it is so important, not only for farmers, but for everyone. Our soil is a resource as essential as water or air. For more information on the Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FOA) work in sustainable soil management, be sure to check out the following video:

I’m All Ears: Corn Harvest 2016

As we come to the end of another season, we continue to be thankful for the blessings of a bountiful harvest. Our corn fields, like several other crops this year, saw great success thanks to all the unusual moisture we received over the course of the summer.

For more than a decade, we have had the great pleasure of working with Dave Christensen and his Painted Mountain indian corn and black-kernel Montana Morado maize. Dave is tireless in his meticulous dedication of breeding both corn varieties for a number of reasons—check out last year’s post regarding our corn harvest, for more information.

This year, we grew about 2-acres of the Painted Mountain and it is as beautiful and diverse as it sounds, its kernels coming in every color you can imagine, sometimes on the same cob. The Montana Morado, however, only took up about a ½-acre, which we sell to a very good friend and fellow organic farmer, Ole Norgaard. Ole uses the corn in his organic North Frontier Foods cornbread and pancake mixes—both of which come highly recommended! But he’s a farmer at heart and each year Ole comes out to the farm for a few days to help us put up a protective fence and hand-harvest the Morado, rain or shine.



Compared to last year’s low harvest due to drought and weeds, Dave and my produce manager, Charley, realized pretty quickly more help would be needed if we were going to get our corn harvested before winter. So, we invited several friends and acquaintances to join us for a harvest day of good company and sunshine. They were mostly members of the Alternative Energy Resources Organization (AERO), Montana’s first association to really support organic agriculture. And considering the weather lately, including a few snow storms, we were taking a risk to set a date more than a few days ahead. But it turned out to be a beautiful, productive day and for each AERO member volunteer, we made a donation to their organization in appreciation for all their hard work.

Thus far—since Dave and Charley are still finishing up the shelling and cleaning process on the Painted Mountain—it’s turning out to be our best corn harvest to date! The end weight of the Morado maize we sold to Ole came out to be about 1,000 pounds. In comparison, last year, on the same amount of land, we were just shy of 200 pounds. And Charley estimates we will about double our Painted Mountain corn harvest compared to last year.

Although we had some challenges with the weather (too much rain) and some disease, especially on the spring grain, all in all we have truly been blessed this year and with Thanksgiving just around the corner, we have so much to celebrate and be grateful for.

Sweet Winter Squash

Everyone is gearing up for the holidays and all the tasty, traditional entrees and sides we’ve come to look forward to and enjoy with friends and family each year. At my house, we swap sweet potatoes for the winter squash we grow right here on the farm. Both delicata and carnival (sometimes called festival) squash are naturally sweeter than most winter squash and make for a delicious substitute for this popular sweet potato dish. So, if you live in winter squash country rather than sweet potato country, give it a whirl and maybe this recipe will become a family favorite at your house as well!

2 medium carnival squash (or 4 delicata squash)
¼ cup butter
½ cup brown sugar
3 tablespoons orange juice
a pinch of cinnamon
1 (10.5 oz) package mini marshmallows

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Cut squash in half and scoop out the seeds. Score the inside of each half several times with a sharp knife.

Place the halves in a baking pan cut-side up. Add a bit of water (about a ½”) to the bottom of the pan to keep the skins from burning and so the squash doesn’t dry out.

Bake 1 hour or until tender and remove from oven.

Scoop tender squash into a large bowl and mix in butter, brown sugar, orange juice and cinnamon. Spread evenly into a 9×13 inch baking dish. Top with mini marshmallows.

Bake for 25 to 30 minutes in oven or until heated through and marshmallows are puffed and golden brown.

KAMUT® Bulgur Chicken Pesto Stuffed Peppers

We have quite a few delicious-looking bell peppers growing in our garden this year and stuffed peppers make for a satisfying meal on a cool, autumn evening. Give them a taste and let me know what you think!

6 red, orange, yellow or green bell peppers
2 chicken breasts, cooked and shredded
1½ cup mozzarella cheese, shredded
1 cup KAMUT® bulgur, cooked
1 (6.25oz) jar of pesto

Set broiler on high. Place whole bell peppers under broiler for 5 minutes on each side, until skin blisters and begins to turn black, then set aside.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Combine the shredded chicken with the pesto, KAMUT® bulgur and 1 cup of shredded cheese.

Once peppers are cool enough to handle, slice in half and remove seeds. Add ¼ cup of the chicken mixture to each pepper and top with remaining mozzarella.

Bake for 10 minutes and enjoy!