As heritage grain enthusiasts seek to create a new marketing model in Colorado, they are taking inspiration from Bob Quinn, a Montana farmer who built a successful specialty grain cooperative and then used proceeds from that venture to research the link between how a healthier food system makes for healthier people.
Quinn is a frequent speaker at agricultural events around the country. In late July, he was in Colorado to help raise money for the new Colorado Grain Chain and to speak about innovation in agriculture during the Slow Food Nations Festival in downtown Denver.
He plans to return to the state in January to serve as a keynote speaker during the annual Grain School, hosted by the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs.
Quinn has laid out his own story and shared a vision for a healthier agriculture in an engaging and highly readable book, "Grain by Grain: A Quest to Revive Ancient Wheat, Rural Jobs and Healthy Food."
The book makes heritage grain farming and community-based business development sound like good common sense and something infinitely achievable.
In Denver, Quinn said his goal was to be upbeat, even though he recognizes the challenges.
"I think there is enough negative stuff out there already," he said. "Everybody moans and groans and wrings their hands over what is happening, but why focus on the downers?
"I didn't sugar-coat it," he added of the way he shared his personal journey. "I just think it's time for a new system of agriculture."
Quinn was raised on a conventional grain and livestock farm, where his dad, a leader in the state and national Farm Bureau, was among the first to introduce commercial fertilizer to north central Montana.
But after Quinn returned to the farm after college, he soon became frustrated with the conventional approach. Eventually, he and his dad took an ancient grain an old farmer handed them at the county fair and turned it into a trademarked specialty grain they named Kamut, which ended up being sold around the world.
Quinn noticed that, while modern wheat varieties were superior performers in ideal weather conditions, his trademarked line of ancient wheat did better and soon caught up under the extreme drought conditions common to his area. He also saw that wheat stem sawfly — a pernicious pest in Montana that has also migrated into northeastern Colorado and is spreading across the state — had a difficult time penetrating the robust stems of the ancient grain, and left his fields alone.
Those characteristics convinced him ancient grains had merit. He was also able to convince some large customers, too, such as Arrowhead Mills.
As his company grew, it did some unusual things.
For one thing, it hired an in-house extension agent.
For another, it adopted a policy of limiting production contracts to 20 percent of a farm's acreage, ideally planted after a leguminous cover crop, in a quest to encourage diversification and crop rotation.
Across the grower network, farmers were encouraged to save back the best seed to distribute for replanting, at no cost to the producer.
"I think we should be adding value all along the supply chain rather than trying to concentrate it in the middle," Quinn writes in the book in protest to the trend toward proprietary seed companies. "To my mind, there's a fatal flaw in economic thinking that measures the success of a business by its ability to amass a lot of capital and control in the hands of a single entity. I measure the success of my business by the degree to which it has added economic, ecological and nutritional value all along the supply chain."
By 2017, production of Kamut had grown to approximately 100,000 acres of organic cropland owned by almost 200 different family farmers, mostly in Montana and neighboring Saskatchewan.
Fully 75 percent of the grain was being exported to Italy for use in a variety of products.
At age 50, Quinn sold off the flour milling part of his business and started growing dry-land vegetables, after discovering how flavorful they were when not diluted with excessive irrigation and nitrogen fertilizer. In his book, Quinn suggests a tremendous opportunity exists for dry-land farms to grow high-value food crops to supply local and regional markets.
While looking for a renewable farm-grown fuel to run his tractors, Quinn also got involved in growing high oleic safflower. It turned out there was demand for it as a cooking oil, while the by-product could be sold as cattle feed. So he and a son-in-law forged an arrangement with a local dining service whereby the oil went to the dining service and returned to the farm to be turned into fuel, all within a closed loop system.
In the book, Quinn comes across as naturally resourceful and tirelessly enterprising.
In Denver, he said he was happy to serve as inspiration for a Colorado effort to build a new grain production model.
Similar efforts are underway in places like New England, Washington State and California, but they are still "islands" within the larger commodity system, he said.
Still, to encourage economic development, some communities have gone as far as to start demanding a certain percentage of locally grown grain goes into every loaf of bread made there, he noted.
One thing he's insistent about— and something not all farmers will agree with — is the importance of switching to organic production.
"Six percent of our food is now organic, and that's a huge change, but farmers still haven't kept up with the market," he said.
Instead of chemicals, it's possible to use living organisms to control pests, he said. He gave the example of a natural protozoa treatment that causes grasshoppers to get sick and die off.
If the government would get behind it, farmers would have more tools to make the switch, he added.
"We need USDA to support more of this kind of research," he said.