"Revitalizing Rural Communities One Grain At A Time" With Bob Quinn and Liz Calisle
The following highlights are from a conversation with Bob Quinn and Liz Carlisle about "Grain by Grain: A Quest to Revive Ancient Wheat, Rural Jobs, and Healthy Food." To hear the full conversation, click the link above or subscribe to our podcast.
Sarah Aronson: What’s sacred about growing wheat?
Bob Quinn: What’s sacred about growing wheat? In my mind almost everything is sacred about growing wheat. From the very first time you put it in the ground, to watching the first appearance of the little green shoot, to watching that grow into a bushy plant, and then the heads coming out. Then finally the harvest coming as the plant fills and dries, and we can actually reap the rewards. It’s like the circle of life only in a plant—a plant that really gives us nourishment and sustenance.
Alright Bob, I want to get into your story.
People ask me how I came about this ancient wheat. When I think back to the first time I actually ever saw it, it happened between my sophomore and junior year of high school. I was attending the county fair and this old man was passing out grain out of an old, red Foldgers coffee can and he calls me over and says, “Hey sonny would you like some of King Tut’s wheat?” And I thought, sure. I walked over and he poured a handful of grain into my hand and it was giant kernels. He claimed and the story went around the county that it’d come out of tombs in Egypt.
I want each of you to make your pitch to millennials or the next generation in your most potent, pared down phrasing. What’s the call?
Bob Quinn: What’s the call? Okay, I would say to the millennials there is hope. Here’s why: in my generation, in the last 35 years, we’ve gone from near 0% of organic foods in the grocery stores to between 5-6%. That’s taken one generation. Yet, at the current rate of growth, which is nearly 10%, you can go from 5.5% to 100% in 30 years just by doing the math and drawing the line on the graph.
It’s not so unreasonable, it’s not so impossible, but it’s not so easy. It will take you folks, you millennials, a big effort to do that. But we have spent our generation opening the door for you and now we invite you to walk through that door and finish the work, so that at the end of your generation you can look back at the 100% chemical experiment and say that chapter is closed. Your children and grandchildren will forever thank you.
Alright, Liz. . .
Liz Carlisle: What I would say to millennials is with the big changes that you know you need to make in this world, think about the ways in which some of the most fundamental decisions and some of the most fundamental ways you’re living your life really contribute to those bigger ideas you want to be a part of. I would say look at your food. Look at your food system. This is so central to any kind of vision of a world where we experience equity and social justice. Any kind of vision of a world where we’re adequately addressing climate change and the environmental challenges around us, and any kind of a world where we’re building an economy that’s much more sustainable and also much more democratic.
Instead of letting food be an afterthought while you’re on your way to something grander, think about the way in which what you’re eating every day and the food system you’re participating in as a food citizen is really part and parcel of building into your daily life the vision you have for a better world.
About the Book:
When 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, after finishing a PhD in plant biochemistry and returning to his family's farm in Montana, Bob started experimenting with organic wheat. In the beginning, his concern wasn't health or the environment; he just wanted to make a decent living and some chance encounters led him to organics.
But as demand for organics grew, so too did Bob's experiments. He discovered that through time-tested practices like cover cropping and crop rotation, he could produce successful yields—without pesticides. Regenerative organic farming allowed him to grow fruits and vegetables in cold, dry Montana, providing a source of local produce to families in his hometown. He even started producing his own renewable energy. And he learned that the grain he first tasted at the fair was actually a type of ancient wheat, one that was proven to lower inflammation rather than worsening it, as modern wheat does.
Ultimately, Bob's forays with organics turned into a multimillion dollar heirloom grain company, Kamut International. In Grain by Grain, Quinn and cowriter Liz Carlisle, author of Lentil Underground, show how his story can become the story of American agriculture. We don't have to accept stagnating rural communities, degraded soil, or poor health. By following Bob's example, we can grow a healthy future, grain by grain.
About the Authors:
Bob Quinn is a leading green businessman, with successful ventures in both organic agriculture and renewable energy. Raised on a 2,400 acre wheat and cattle ranch in Montana, Quinn earned a Ph.D. in plant biochemistry at UC Davis before coming home to farm in 1978. In 1986, he planted his first organic crop, and by 1989, he had converted his entire farm. He served on the first National Organic Standards Board, which spurred the creation of the USDA's National Organic Program, 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. As an entrepreneur, Quinn has founded five significant enterprises: a regional mill for organic and heritage grains, an organic snack company, a business that sells culinary oil and recycles it as biofuel, Montana's first wind farm, and Kamut International. Kamut, the ancient grain Quinn revived from a pint jar of seed found in a neighbor's basement, is now grown on 100,000 acres of certified organic cropland and manufactured into over 3500 products worldwide. In addition, Bob remains active in research, and has co-authored pioneering studies on the nutritional benefits of ancient grain.
Liz Carlisle is a Lecturer in the School of Earth, Energy, and Environmental Sciences at Stanford University, where she teaches courses on food and agriculture, sustainability transition, and environmental communication. She holds a Ph.D. from UC Berkeley and a B.A. from Harvard University, and she formerly served as Legislative Correspondent for Agriculture and Natural Resources in the Office of U.S. Senator Jon Tester. Recognized for her academic writing with the Elsevier Atlas Award, which honors research with social impact, Liz has also published numerous pieces for general audience readers, in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Business Insider, and Stanford Social Innovation Review. A former country singer who once opened shows for Travis Tritt, LeAnn Rimes, and Sugarland, Carlisle brings a populist flair to the 40+ talks she gives each year. Her first book, Lentil Underground, (2015) won the Montana Book Award and the Green Prize for Sustainable Literature.