Bob Quinn is the new organic farmer – highly educated and deeply philosophical

Bob Quinn, KAMUT International; OTA Executive Director Christine Bushway; and Theresa Marquez, Organic Valley

Bob Quinn of KAMUT® International comes from good Montana stock. His father Mack (who is 90 and still helping with harvesting) and his mother Dorothea have been married for nearly 65 years. The next generation is in the wings; Bob and Ann (his wife of 40 years) have raised 5 children on their Montana farm.

Involved in organic agriculture since the 1970s, Quinn has devoted his career to building the KAMUT Khorasan wheat brand, which is sold as whole grain or flour and is used as an ingredient in bread, cereal, and other grain-based products. In October, the Organic Trade Association presented him with one of two Organic Leadership Awards for 2010.

Following is a lightly edited version of Quinn’s acceptance at the OTA Annual Dinner.

Since our farm was one of the first organic certified farms in Montana, there weren’t many to ask for help. I remember an early visit that I had with a weed scientist at Montana State University. I had come for his suggestions to control troublesome weeds without chemical herbicides. He was astonished by the question and said, “No one has ever asked such a question before.”

That experience formed the basis of my quest to develop a successful organic system for the northern Great Plains. I believe the future of our industry depends on our continuing to ask questions that have not been asked before. If we get complacent and stop pushing back the frontiers of knowledge and experience, we will be replaced by someone who is willing to do it.

I have tried to follow this philosophy on our farm as we have evolved from our first experiments with crop rotations and soil building legumes. We are now trying to grow all our fuel, experimenting with cover crops on the prairie, and hoping to develop a model for growing small orchards and dry land vegetables in wheat country.

Chemical companies would have us view our farms as factories where chemicals and a few seeds are put in at the beginning of the year and at the end out comes a finished crop ready to harvest. Our farms are not enclosed factories. They are living systems.

For those of you who have your own factories, you know that your workers are the ones you depend on for your productivity and if you are clever, you will treat them well and nourish them. On our farms our best and most prolific workers live in the soil and most of them are microscopic. If we are wise, we will nourish and care for those workers rather than ignore their role and importance and poison them with chemicals. If we do care for them and nourish them, they will repay our efforts many times over.

For the last 25 years we have worked to introduce an ancient grain to the organic market under the KAMUT brand name. We started with a handful of grain and now produce over 40 million pounds on 40,000 acres across 150 organic farms (including ours) in Montana, Alberta, Saskatchewan and North Dakota. My passions for organic farming lead me to require that all the KAMUT brand grain we sell be organically grown.

At present there are more than 2000 different KAMUT brand products on the market. Our biggest market is Italy, which takes 60% of the grain produced and is growing at a rate of over 40% per year.

Early in our introduction of KAMUT brand products, there were people who said they could not eat modern wheat but they felt better after eating our ancient grain. During the past few years we have spent hundreds of thousands of Euros on scientific research in Italy trying to understand the reason for this phenomenon.

The first of many papers is finally ready for publication in January 2011, and it will show how many important nutritional factors have been changed or diminished by breeding programs that focus only on high yields and requirements of mass production. I now suspect these changes are probably widespread in many of our basic foods which have been subjected to the same plant breeding goals for the past 100 years. I also believe that these changes and the abundance of chemicals in our food and environment are responsible for much of our current health crises.

Today we see a focus on cheap food and wonder why we are overwhelmed by increasing disease and enormous medical costs. We as a nation are very well feed, by and large, but we are not very well nourished. So if we are going the wrong way with our plant breeding programs, why do we want to accelerate that mistake even further now with GMOs? It is my hope that our findings as well as additional related research will eventually influence plant-breeding programs to include a nutritional component in their efforts.

I also believe that organic food generally can play an important role in reducing disease and I implore you not to diminish that role by following the chemical food industry’s model of a total focus on cheap food. This is an unsustainable system that relies on government payments to farmers and chemicals to add nutrition, flavor, color, taste and long shelf life to our food. As an organic food industry, we must avoid that trap and promote the idea and ideal that paying a little more at the checkout counter will save a lot more at the doctor’s office.

We were all put on this earth not to just make money and build empires but we, as in each generation before and after us, have come to change the world. It matters not how big or small that change is, it only matters if that change is positive or negative.

The organic movement started as a very positive change. So let’s be sure we keep that change positive as best we can and live and promote the spirit of the organic movement on our farms, in our businesses, in our professions and in our personal lives. At the heart of that spirit is peace, harmony, interconnection and joy that comes not just with our relationships with the earth and nature but also with each other.

We are all brothers and sisters and great changes for good can be made by many very small acts of kindnesses we extend to each other. For these acts will be remembered and appreciated both in this world and in the next.

We thank Bob Quinn for his permission to reproduce these comments. For more information, got to the KAMUT International website.