Self-sufficiency is the goal of this Northern Montana grain farmer

Candace Krebs
Special to Ag Journal
Bob Quinn, who attended UCCS Grain School a year ago, told members of the Montana Organic Association recently about his plans to grow citrus trees in northern Montana in an underground greenhouse. He has set a goal of producing all of his own food year-round on his farm near Big Sandy, Montana.

Rural communities could be more self-sufficient at producing their own food, even where the growing season is short, and one Northern Montana grain farmer is out to prove it.

Bob Quinn is best known for commercializing Kamut, an ancient grain that goes by the common name khorasan. It is believed to have originated in Egypt. He was introduced to it by an old-timer at a county fair and grew it into a trademarked product now produced by dozens of farmers and sold around the world.

He tells that story in "Grain by Grain: A Quest to Revive Ancient Wheat, Rural Jobs and Healthy Food," published in 2019 by Island Press.

Last January he traveled to Colorado Springs to promote the book at Grain School, a three-day educational event hosted by the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs. (The 2021 conference has been moved online and is now scheduled to begin with the first of several new sessions in February.)

During the winter conference of the Montana Organic Association, Quinn updated members on progress he has made in transitioning to “retirement,” which will include stepping aside as president of the Kamut organization after 35 years. Even so, he still has several ambitious projects in the works.

He’s currently building a subterranean greenhouse that he hopes will enable him to grow all of his own food year-round.

“One thing I’m doing now is I’m trying to raise all my own food,” he said. “I’m up to 85 percent, from my orchard and garden. But I will admit that was quite a challenge this year.”

The Big Sandy area was hit with a severe hailstorm in 2020 followed by a plague of grasshoppers. Regardless, Quinn believes even in northern Montana there’s an opportunity for greater self-sufficiency and more abundant local food production.

Quinn’s parents and grandparents always went to Arizona for the winter. But Quinn is staying home and constructing a kit-built greenhouse, nestled 5 feet into the ground, purchased from Alliance, Nebraska-based Greenhouse in the Snow. Invented by Russ Finch, a postal service retiree now in his 80s, the structure is geothermally climate-controlled using 4-inch pipes buried underground that provide sufficient warming and cooling to grow citrus crops in northern Nebraska.

The structure is relatively quick and easy to install and sold by the lineal foot, amounting to about the same price as a nice pick-up.

“In one part I’ll have a dozen or so different stone fruits, and two-thirds of it will be the citrus room,” Quinn said of his own structure. “It will never freeze, so I’ll be able to grow oranges, lemons, limes and grapefruit, and avocado. So that’s going to be my fun experiment and my adventure for the future.”

Quinn has long been an advocate of communities growing their own food and shortening the food supply chain, even before the coronavirus pandemic put a spotlight on the issue.

He believes instead of inventing “a Band-Aid” to fix the COVID-19 outbreak, the country should be tackling rampant underlying health conditions and chronic diseases.

“We have the answer to that: We can grow nutrient-dense foods,” he said.

To that end, Quinn is setting up a 600-acre organic research center in the middle of his farm, where test plots and demonstrations will help provide guidance to area farmers, field days will be held and interns will be hired to learn and teach.

“Eventually we want to have a full-time extension-type person available,” he said.

“I’d like to add a culinary aspect to this,” he added, saying he was inspired by a visit to Chef Dan Barber’s famous farm-to-table restaurant, Blue Hill at Stone Barns, in upstate New York, and also wants to work on educational initiatives to cut down on food waste.

Quinn has another healthy food project underway at Montana’s Rocky Boy Reservation, where he has assisted Chippewa and Cree tribal members in converting 500 acres to organic grain production and setting up their own hopper bin and flour mill. In addition to growing ancient grain, they erected a hoop house and are producing huckleberries, higher resistant starch potatoes and squash, and putting in root cellars for year-round storage.

Quinn is also pursuing a self-directed research project he started several years ago to examine glyphosate herbicide residue in the environment. The experiment is being undertaken in conjunction with his neighbor Jon Tester, the Montana senator who is also an organic farmer.

Lab samples analyzed at Montana State University have shown some intriguing seasonal and geographic differences and also demonstrate that glyphosate residue is more readily detected in rain than in soils. “That has changed the direction of our focus,” Quinn said.

Keeping traces of glyphosate out of grain samples is a challenge, even for organic farms, he added.

“We want to know where it’s coming from and what we can do about it,” he said.