The Spirit of the Law Giveth Life*: Organic is More Than a Checklist

organic hay bales with bears paw mountains in the background

The organic movement has seen a huge boost in popularity over the last few decades. And that’s a good thing! That means more folks, more families, are choosing to grow, buy and eat more healthy, organic foods every year. And while I, of course, welcome anyone who wants to convert to organic systems, it worries me that some farms and large corporations are jumping on the organic bandwagon focused only on transferring their current industrial model to their organic operations just to cash in on a lucrative new market instead of studying and applying the non-extractive, regenerative, holistic approach—the bigger pictures, spirit of the organic movement.

For those of us who fought so hard all those years ago for unified, organic standards, I believe most of us had that vision of the bigger picture and focused on that rather than just following the letter of the law. We saw more than higher profit margins and a better bottom line. We saw farmers free of devastating financial circumstances brought on by the high cost of inputs and the low prices they received. We saw rural communities bolstered and restored by more prosperous farms and better-paid workers in the food sector. We saw the decline of pollution and soil erosion brought on by artificial mono-cultures, propped up with enormous inputs of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. And we saw better health for our families, our friends and our neighbors. Regenerative, organic agriculture, sustainable organic processing and trade are so much more than a burgeoning industry!

As a regenerative, organic farmer, I often see things first from a farmer’s perspective. And from that perspective, I have seen the growing hype over the word “regenerative.” Some in this group focus so hard on things like no-till as their rallying cry, that they believe using just a little herbicide, like RoundUp (glyphosate) is okay. And on the other hand, there are organic farmers and livestock producers that follow the organic standards to the letter while using an industrial model of inputs to feed the plants, neglecting the vital soil building elements and systems that keep both the soil and animals healthy. To me, organic that is not regenerative, and regenerative that is not organic, are both missing the spirit of what was originally intended. In a very true sense, one is not complete without the other.

I have a similar concern regarding the businesses that meet every standard, every qualification and rule it took us years to put into place—standards intended to both simplify and unify a then-splintered pro-organic community—but are still missing the spirit of the law. The big picture. For companies focused solely on their bottom line and filling their coffers, using the same industrial extractive model that is strangling our current food industry with its continual sellouts and concentration on wealth and power. And even worse, some of these larger newcomers are putting pressure on the USDA, lobbying to make the organic program more industrial by ignoring key guidelines, like the pasture rule—a rule that was carefully crafted and debated for years. What I would hope is for more of these companies to abandon their extractive, industrial model and focus on things such as the triple bottom line, which contributes to its communities by paying fair wages to its workers and to the farmers for their products, and to caring for the earth by reducing pollution. But the greatest contribution of a truly organic, regenerative system is the improvement of our health! Nutritious, health-promoting food has the ability to change the world for the better. That is the spirit of organic and why I have been a proponent for more than three decades.

In my upcoming book, Grain by Grain (to be released March 5th), I explore these issues and many others in greater detail, focusing on the true value of regenerative organic products. It’s not just all about meeting a list of guidelines. For me, organic is more than an industry or a bottom line, it’s a conversion of outlook. It’s a love for the earth, which we can demonstrate by caring for it. It’s a love for our neighbors, shown by producing healthy, nutritious food. It’s a love for our communities, by recognizing and appreciating the hard work of farmers and all the people working in the food sector by ensuring all receive fair wages to support and raise their families. It’s about human health, community health, and the health of our planet.

*2 Corinthians 3:6

Farmers Pay the High Cost for Cheap Food

northern montana farm

As I’ve mentioned many times: there is a very high cost for cheap food. In my last blog, I touched on this subject with an overview of each of the four entities that bear most of the financial burden of cheap food. But let’s talk about where it all starts—let’s talk about the farmers themselves.

Farming has always been a high-risk business, after all it’s literally at the mercy of mother nature! But there’s also the viability of the market and market prices, the availability of credit for capital purchases, access to land in general, and even the higher possibility for injury. Even death. As I said, high risk. So with all these risks, you might ask why anyone would even consider being a farmer. The answer is simple: Because we love it. But during the last 60 years or so, a new risk has been added to this already daunting list: The risk of adopting the current industrial model of agriculture which is determined to produce abundant, cheap food.

The industrial model was born with the general introduction of chemical fertilizers and pesticides after World War II. As the need for the military industrial complex diminished, the agrichemical industrial complex began to takes its place. After seeing the devastation in Europe, our government was more determined than ever to see that we had a cheap and plentiful food supply, starting with grain. Everything was focused on yields and an industrial model was adopted to achieve this goal. With increased yields, we were not only able to feed ourselves but we could sell the excess abroad, bringing in money that tipped the balance of trade in our favor for decades.

The wheat farmers of the dryland West adopted these new technologies almost immediately. And why wouldn’t they? Weeds had been increasing year after year due to a lack of crop rotations. And weeds are a pain! They reduce crop yields, plug combines at harvest, and brought so much moisture into the bins that there was a constant risk of mold. But with the application of 2,4-D, weeds disappeared. If your paycheck was being threatened and someone handed you a magic potion to fix it, you’d have done it too. It was a no-brainer and it was adopted by almost everyone in the wheat belt overnight.

By the late 1940’s, the land in our neighborhood here in northern Montana had been farmed for more than 20 years without putting anything back. The soil was starting to run out of nutrients and yields were stagnating. Slowly at first, but at an increasing rate, the application of chemical fertilizers increased yields significantly, especially when combined with higher-yielding varieties bred to respond to higher inputs. The goals for cheap, plentiful food had been achieved. Unfortunately, this industrialized model, like all artificial systems, was neither sustainable nor regenerative.

As higher yielding plants demanded ever-increasing doses of chemical fertilizers, costs for the farmer and the soil went up. After many years, alkaline soils common to the arid west started to turn acidic, which stunted plant growth and stimulated the release of deadly heavy metals like aluminum. But instead of reconsidering the wisdom of the industrial model, those pushing it advocated to apply more chemicals to the soil, such as lime, to reduce acidity and bred wheat that will not absorb the aluminum.

Naturally, chemical fertilizers stimulated more than the crops and the growth of weeds required more herbicides to control them. As herbicide use increased, so did weed resistance, which required more and stronger herbicides. See a pattern here? Herbicides now contaminate the soil, our waterways, and even our rainwater.

And these inputs, the chemical fertilizers and herbicides, are not free. In fact, they are unbelievably expensive! So how do farmers pay for all these inputs? For decades, the ag-chemical companies made sure federal subsidies were the answer. In the mid-80’s, before I switched to regenerative organic farming, my chemical bills ranged from 24 to 26 thousand dollars! My government subsidies very nearly came to the same amount. Meaning that I, as the farmer, was the middle-man in a transfer of federal funds from the government treasury to the chemical companies without any discussion or complaint.

Each year, farmers are required to pay for more and more inputs. Many crops now being grown are GMO crops and the GMO’s are owned by the companies that created them. These companies sell their genetically modified seed to farmers at exorbitantly high prices each year and even restrict farmers from saving seed to use the next year. To add insult to injury, and to entrap the farmers even more into the industrial model where they have less and less control, farmers are also required to buy the chemicals required to protect these GMO crops from weeds.

Does that sound fair or reasonable to you? So why are there still so many farmers participating in the growing industrialization of agriculture? Farmers are assured that by buying all of these expensive inputs, they will see higher yields and more gross revenue. What they fail to mention is the farmer’s net profit. As the cost of inputs continues to rise, the net profit continues to decline, until many farmers can no longer make a living.

When prices drop due to overproduction, according to market demand, the goal of cheap, abundant food is reached, but farmers are paying a very high price for cheap food.

Grain by Grain: A Quest to Revive Ancient Wheat, Rural Jobs, and Healthy Food

grain by grain book coverWhen Bob Quinn was a kid, a stranger at a county fair gave him a few kernels of an unusual grain. Little did he know, that grain would change his life.

Years later, it would become the centerpiece of his multimillion dollar heirloom-grain company, Kamut International. How Bob went from being a true believer in better farming through chemistry to a leading proponent of organics is the unlikely story of Grain by Grain.

Along the way, readers will learn why ancient wheat might be the solution to gluten sensitivity, as well as to improving health; how regenerative organic agriculture can bring back rural jobs; and how time-tested farming practices can replace toxic pesticides and fertilizers.

When it comes to food, we don’t have to accept the status quo. By following Bob’s example, we can grow a healthier future, one grain at a time.

Available Today!

Buy now from

amazon link
barnes and noble link
local bookstore link

Bob’s Book Tour Events

list of grain by grain book tour locations

About the Authors

BOB QUINN is an organic farmer near Big Sandy, Montana, and a leading green businessman. He served on the first National Organic Standards Board, and has been recognized with the Montana Organic Association Lifetime of Service Award, The Organic Trade Association Organic Leadership Award, and Rodale Institute’s Organic Pioneer Award. His enterprises include the ancient-grain business Kamut International and Montana’s first wind farm.

LIZ CARLISLE is a lecturer in the School of Earth, Energy, and Environmental Sciences at Stanford University. Her first book, Lentil Underground, won the Montana Book Award and the Green Prize for Sustainable Literature.

Praise for Grain by Grain

“In the age of start-ups and tech crazes, it might seem counterintuitive to call something as ancient as grain ‘revelatory.’ Nevertheless, Bob Quinn’s quest to recapture the value of our food system through grain is just that—a revelation. Liz Carlisle and Bob Quinn have unlocked the key to kickstarting change—Grain by Grain is one big kernel of truth.”
— DAN BARBER, chef/co-owner, Blue Hill, and author of The Third Plate

“Farmer and plant biochemist Bob Quinn’s passionate story makes it impossible to go on farming (or eating) as usual. A must-read for anyone who wants to understand why our food system is so unhealthy and how we can fix it.”
— DAPHNE MILLER, MD, author of Farmacology: Total Health from the Soil Up

“Long before anybody heard the term social enterprise, a few untrained businesspeople started small, unconventional companies to solve problems for their neighbors—and succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. This is the story of one such entrepreneurial effort, which demonstrates how a green economy rooted in regenerative organic agriculture and renewable energy can help rebuild struggling communities in rural America.”
— YVON CHOUINARD, founder of Patagonia

“A compelling personal story that takes the wind out of the war on wheat and charts a course for getting rural America off the agrochemical treadmill.”
— DAVID R. MONTGOMERY, author of Growing a Revolution: Bringing Our Soil Back to Life

Grain by Grain in the News

Looking Back and Moving Forward—A New Year’s Reflection

sunrise between trees

New Year’s Day is one of my favorite days of the year! It’s the perfect time to reflect back on the previous year and makes plans for the next. I have finished the last entry of my daily journal for 2018 with a quarterly review of my goals for last year and I have begun the first entry of my 2019 journal with a list of goals to focus on in 2019. This also includes a review of the goals I have set for the next 40 years—I don’t have anything planned past my 110th birthday; I figure if I make it that far I’m going to take it easy for a while. I have always been in the habit of making more long-term plans but for the last couple of decades I have made it an annual ritual to review my written list on New Year’s Day. Some items are accomplished and get scratched off the list, some are abandoned and get dropped, and a few new ideas get added as the years roll by. It is a lot of fun for me.

Reflecting back on the first year of my three-year retirement plan, I am very satisfied with my progress. In 2018 I completed four of my five main goals:

We didn’t get the grant necessary to establish an organic research institute here in Big Sandy using part of our farm. But I’ve been working on some alternative ideas that may still make this possible. (More on that as it develops.) And there are always unexpected hiccups and challenges as a year progresses. We were very sad to see my son-in-law, Andrew, leave The Oil Barn® to work in Great Falls and we sure miss having the grandkids running around the farm every day. We are also still working to understand and resolve the occasional problem we have observed of trace amounts of glyphosate on some organic fields and crops. In addition to my belief that organic farming is the solution to global climate change and growing health crises and should be protected, I always want to understand as much as possible about the world around me and will continue to investigate and collect data on this.

Looking forward to this new year, I will be on the road. A lot. Between book tours around the country and the usual trade shows and organic conferences, 2019 promises to be a very busy year. I hope you’ll be able to attend one of my book tour events; be sure to keep an eye out on my Facebook events calendar for more details on the when and where. But I’m determined to stay home all month in August where I plan to work in my garden and harvest as much food as I can and hopefully start building a subterranean greenhouse. (Stay tuned for more on that later.)

I wish you a very happy, healthy and successful New Year! Be well, eat healthy, and be thankful.

Your friend,

Who Pays the High Cost for Cheap Food?

fruit and vegetable basket

Let’s talk about the high cost of cheap food. As one of the main themes of my upcoming book, Grain by Grain (in stores on March 5th), we can no longer afford the high cost of cheap food. There have been two main goals regarding our food supply since World War II: The first is for food to be plentiful and the second is for that food to be cheap. As the laws of supply-and-demand go, being plentiful and being cheap usually go hand-in-hand. So the goal was easy to achieve. But these goals are achieved at the expense of everything else!

We’re starting to recognize the very high cost of our cheap and abundant food and we don’t pay this cost at the checkout counter when we buy our groceries.

  • Farmers pay it financially with low profits for their crops.
  • Rural communities pay it with the decline of local farms and income.
  • Our planet pays it with increasing evidence of pollution in our food and water (Roundup Rain, aka glyphosate).
  • And people pay it with poor health.

WE pay the high cost of cheap food! Our families. Our friends. Our neighbors.

These high costs were unintended, for the most part. They are consequences of a system focused only on price and yield—cheap and plentiful. But they failed to take into account the effects it would have on all the connecting parts.

There used to be a common saying regarding action and consequence that went something like, “We cannot pick up one end of the stick without picking up the other end.” With our emerging understanding of how everything is interrelated and interdependent, rather than compare the relationship between cause and effect to two ends of a stick, I think it’s more like a giant web. When one part if affected, no matter how small or how far away, the whole is affected.

With a single focus on cause and effect, the goal of cheap and abundant food was achieved by focusing on increasing yields and efficiency. And increased yields and efficiency meant the industrialization of both agriculture and food processing, using more chemicals and bigger machinery. But there was little (or no) thought given to the consequences to anything or anybody beyond “cheap and abundant food.” Whether the decision was a horrible case of naivety or outright deception, I couldn’t say and it doesn’t matter. Unintended consequences are a normal result of almost all human activity throughout history. Mistakes can be forgiven and made right if they are recognized in time and steps are taken to correct them. But if mistakes are ignored, covered up, or denied—blatant lies and false assurances that all is well and there’s nothing to worry about—they are harder to forgive and harder to overcome.

In the weeks to come, I will touch on each of these areas affected by the high cost of cheap food in more detail. After all, we can only fix a problem once it is recognized and the source of the problem is identified. We know what the problem is and we know the cause. Now is the time to change.