A Montana Farmer's Quest To Revive Ancient Wheat

Apr 18, 2019

Big Sandy farmer Bob Quinn was a child in the mid-1960s when a stranger at a county fair gave him a few kernels of an unusual grain that changed his life in ways he describes in his new book, Grain by Grain: A Quest to Revive Ancient Wheat, Rural Jobs and Healthy Food. He wrote the book with Stanford University lecturer Liz Carlisle.

Yellowstone Public Radio’s Sarah Brown sat down with Quinn to talk about what modern farming of ancient grains means for the environment, the economy and the eater.

SARAH BROWN: Bob Quinn, thanks so much for joining us today.

BOB QUINN: Thanks Sarah. It's great to be here.

SB: So, yesterday I was shopping at Costco and I found this two pound bag of ancient grains granola. It's made with KAMUT.

BQ: Well, that is a trademark that we use this market and ancient wheat. I first saw this grain that at the county fair at Fort Benton. He's probably younger than I am now but he looked old to me, as a high school student. He was passing out handfuls of this grain from an old Folgers red coffee can and he motioned to me and he said, "Hey, sonny." He says, "Come on over here. Would you like some of King Tut's wheat?" Oh well sure, I might be interested in that, and he poured this giant grain into my hand. These giant kernels never really took off. There wasn't any market for it and so it just sort of went idle and after a few years disappeared altogether. There it sat until 86 and then we went to a food show in California. My vision was, wow, this could be a great novelty. Maybe we can grow 10, 15, 20 acres of this and it would be the most valuable grain grown on the whole farm. That's not what happened. Within 30 years, we had a hundred thousand acres contracted with about 250 are organic farmers all over Montana, Alberta and Saskatchewan and it took off in ways we never imagined

SB: KAMUT wheat is in everything from breadcrumbs to waffle mixes and it's in over 40 countries.

BQ: People who could not eat modern wheat said they could eat this.

SB: Where does the research come from that says that people who, people who are gluten insensitive can tolerate this?

BQ: Well, it's not just gluten, but it's all types of sensitivities that people have to modern weight. And those are the people that we're experimenting with trying to understand why most of them, 85% of those people can not only tolerate the, can they feel better eating it.

SB: Why don't they sell it at the pharmacy?

BQ: That is a very good question.

SB: Farmers, especially here in Montana, are always looking for those elusive niche markets like the one that you've captured with KAMUT. So, can you talk a little bit about building your brand?

BQ: Focus on quality to be high protein, then make sure it's highest protein possible. It has to be fresh. Make sure it's as fresh as possible.

SB: You talk about adding value to crops and to agriculture, but also adding value to the entire food system.

BQ: Yes.

SB: What does that mean?

BQ: Well, our progress in feeding the world and producing more per farm was always extolled. We were always told how many people one farmer was feeding and that was a great success story. Even today, that is still the main drum beaten, particularly with biotech. So that's about yield as opposed to nutrition. There's no mention of nutrition. So the goal is to have high yields and abundant crops and the goal is to never go hungry and have cheap food so everybody can afford it, if you take it at face value. Those were reasonable and good objectives, right? I mean, who would argue with that? There's a very high cost of cheap food and we don't pay it at the checkout counter because the farmers go broke and move away. Main Street businesses start to go out and then the next cost is the high cost of the pollution to our planet. We have glyphosate now and our rain falling on our farm was, she's never had any glyphosate. We've been organic for over 30 years. The fourth high cost is a high cost to our health. We have traded high yields for high nutrition.

SB: And what do you hope that people will take away from this book?

BQ: There is some really cause for hope and it's not so difficult. Organic agriculture answers so many of the most pressing problems of climate change, of rural community, revitalization of our health, of the farm, crisis of soil depletion and erosions. All these things are wrapped up in regenerative, organic agriculture.

SB: And as consumers we can…

BQ: You can buy one more organic product every day.

SB: Bob Quinn, thank you so much for joining us today at Yellowstone public radio, your new book is Grain by Grain A Quest to Revive Ancient Wheat, Rural Jobs, and Healthy Food.

BQ: Thank you so much for having me.