Bob Quinn: The Modern Benefits of Ancient Grains
Today on Rootstock Radio we’re talking to an organic farmer and sustainable agriculture pioneer who’s in the habit of wearing his heart on his sleeve—and in his hat. Often seen with a few stalks of the ancient grain Kamut® tucked into his wide-brimmed cowboy hat, Bob Quinn is pioneering sustainable agriculture and alternative energy in his state of Montana. He’s incredibly knowledgeable about Khorasan wheat, commercially known as Kamut®, that he grows on his farm, but that’s certainly not Bob’s only area of expertise.
Tune in to hear about:
- The legends about where Kamut comes from and how Bob traveled across the world to try to get to the bottom of them.
- Why this particular ancient grain has a registered trademark.
- How Italy is obsessed with it! (We’re talking 95%-of-products-it’s-used-for-come-out-of-Italy, obsessed.)
- The changes we’ve made to modern wheat that make it less and less digestible.
- How Bob uses recycled vegetable oil to help run his farm.
- Bob’s mantra: “Growing everything I eat, eating everything I grow” and his forthcoming book Grain by Grain co-authored with fellow Rootstock Radio guest Liz Carlisle.
Rootstock Radio Interview with Bob Quinn
Air Date: March 11, 2019
Welcome to Rootstock Radio. Join us as host Theresa Marquez talks to leaders from the Good Food movement about food, farming, and our global future. Rootstock Radio—propagating a healthy planet. Now, here’s host Theresa Marquez.
THERESA MARQUEZ: Hello, and welcome to Rootstock Radio. I’m Theresa Marquez, and I’m here today with Bob Quinn. To say that Bob Quinn is an organic farmer is going to be the first truth about him, but he’s beyond just being an organic farmer. He’s a pioneer; he has a PhD in plant biochemistry; he is a leader in Montana for organic and sustainable agriculture, but also for alternative energy as well. And so, Bob is someone who I’ve known for a long time. And sometimes I’ll be in a crowd and I’ll spot a guy with a beautiful smile, a ten-gallon hat, and a sprig of wheat coming of out of his hat, and I know I’m looking at Bob Quinn.
So, Bob, I don’t know if you have your hat on today, but what a pleasure it is to have you on the radio today.
BOB QUINN: Well, thank you so much, Theresa. It’s my honor to join in. It’s great to hear your voice again.
TM: And wow, you know, we’ve known each other for so long and yet, as I read through all your accomplishments of your most amazing life, I’ve learned all kinds of new things about you. So I’m very excited to be talking with you today. And, for sure, we must talk about kamut.
TM: I think, for our listeners, Montana is all so well-known for being the wheat state and the dryland wheat state. And so, Bob, maybe you can talk a little bit about wheat, Montana, and how you got to actually start or rename an ancient wheat, kamut.
BQ: Well, actually Kamut® is a trademark. And we registered that trademark in order to protect an ancient grain that we had been working with for a few years, and all of sudden people were expressing interest in it. Really, the turning point for me was when we had made this ancient grain into a pasta and given it to our friends. And one lady who couldn’t any wheat—she was just terribly sensitive to all kinds of food, but wheat in particular—called us back the next day, and she said, “What in the world is this stuff?” She says, “It makes me feel better.” So it not only didn’t affect her negatively as a wheat when she couldn’t eat wheat, but it actually made it a positive difference in her other problems with food.
And we said, “Wow, that’s great, we’ll give you some more.” We gave her some more and she gave some to her sister who couldn’t eat wheat either and had lots of other food allergies. And after she ate it for a few weeks, not only could she eat it and felt good, but she was less allergic to other things.
And at that point, Theresa, we thought, “Wow, this is something more than just a novelty.” In the beginning we thought it was a novelty—I’ll tell you about that in a second. But I felt like it was really a gift—a gift from the Almighty that was given to us to help us heal and to feel good and to enjoy our food, particularly our wheat food.
TM: Well, you know, that was a long time ago, wasn’t it? When did you start—
BQ: It was. That was 30 years ago. That happened 30 years ago, and my first introduction to the wheat was about 20 years before that when I was still in high school. I saw it at a county fair, and this old man was passing it out in a coffee can—an old Folgers red coffee can—and said, “Hey, sonny!” he says. He called me over, he says, “Would you like some of King Tut’s wheat?” And that’s the first time I saw it.
And it was giant kernels—it was about three times the size of normal wheat. And the legend with it was that a fellow from our county had been stationed in Portugal in the Air Force and ran into a fellow in the bar one night that had just got back from a furlough in Egypt, and he says, “Hey, look at what I found in a tomb in Egypt.” And he showed him this wheat. And he talked him out of—my Montana [unclear], a friend of my dad’s—talked him out of a few kernels he sent home to his dad in about 1950 and he started growing it.
And it grew! Which should’ve been the first clue it wasn’t really from a tomb, because stuff sitting there for four thousand years is well long gone.
TM: But it is thousands of years old, isn’t it?
BQ: Well, the grain, as we started studying it, we’ve isolated that the origin has to be in the Mesopotamia area. And when I went to Cairo and I started traveling and selling this grain all over the world, I’ve been doing research, studying its growing potentials in different wheat-growing areas all over the world. We ended up in Egypt and looking at some possibilities of growing it there. And I went to the Cairo museum and looked at the grain that they’d actually taken out of the tombs, and it was einkorn. And I was so deflated because I’d been told this story and I had been telling it myself for years.
But then when I went to Turkey they said, “Oh, we know this grain.” They said, “We call it camel’s tooth or we call it the prophet’s wheat.” And I said, “Well, that’s really interesting. I see why you call it camel’s tooth, maybe, because of the way it’s shaped—it’s kind of hump shaped, big on one end, small on the other.” But I said, “Why do you call it the prophet’s wheat?” I said, “Does it have something to do with Muhammad?” And they said, “Oh, no, no, no. Not that prophet!” They said, “You know, the one with the boat.” And I said, “The boat?” I said, “You mean Noah?” They said, “Oh, yes. This is the grain Noah brought with him on the Ark.” I said, “Wow, that’s a lot better story than my old tomb story.”
So, we don’t really know the origin, but it’s certainly old. It’s certainly old, Theresa. And people in Mesopotamia, from Turkey clear down to Egypt, still plant it in their small family plots. It’s disappeared off of the economic circles because of its low yields. And so, modern agriculture has just crowded it out because all the focus is on industrial ag with high-yielding wheat. And the high-yielding wheat and the changes we’ve made to it to make it high-yielding has, I think, led to some of the problem. But this still existed. It’s certainly very, very old. And so we tried to revive it here in north-central Montana.
TM: Well, and you’ve been very successful in reviving it, haven’t you Bob?
BQ: Well, last year… Thirty years ago we started with a half-acre on our farm. And a couple years ago, when we had the peak of what we were growing, we were at 250 organic farmers approximately growing 100,000 acres, all organic in Montana, mostly in Saskatchewan, also in Alberta and a little bit of North Dakota, and just a little bit of the western Durham growing area of the northern Great Plains.
TM: So, are you making Kamut into pasta, mostly?
BQ: Yes. It’s used in any way wheat is used, only you have to be a little bit careful with. It doesn’t act like modern wheat, but it can be used for any of those products that you make wheat out of. All over the world we have nearly 4,000 different products on the market. Ninety-five percent of those products are coming out of Italy, who take about 75 percent of all the grain planted and grown in North America. But they’ve just latched on to it as something that was once a part of their culture, then lost, and now it’s been re-found.
And they make everything from soups to nuts: all kinds of pastas, breads, desserts. They make beer out of it; they make coffee substitutes; they make syrups out of it, like barley syrups, rice syrups. They make all kinds of cereals and seitans, meat substitutes, couscous, and bulgur—things we don’t see much of in America, they have in abundance there. So it’s really taken Italy by storm.
TM: So what is it about Kamut that they like?
BQ: The flavor.
TM: Ah, the flavor.
BQ: And the aromas. You know, we have lost, in America… I don’t know, the importance that we place on flavors and aromas is starting to come back, particularly in some of the artisan bakers—they look for this sort of thing. It’s very interesting, Theresa, from the research that we’ve done comparing ancient wheat and modern wheat, have found that the ancient wheat has so much stronger nutrition, it’s anti-inflammatory, where modern wheat is inflammatory at small levels. It has a stronger antioxidant capacity, it lowers blood sugar, it lowers cholesterol—all this stuff.
And a lot of these things are related, we think, are related to phenolic compounds which lend themselves to flavors and aromas in food. And so the better a food smells and tastes, probably the better it is for you—if it’s naturally that way and not just a bunch of man-made chemicals that have been added to mimic that.
TM: Wow, that is pretty exciting. And you know, you keep talking about “modern wheat.” Well, wheat isn’t—Kamut, for example, is an ancient grain and it’s probably one of the many ancient grains. So what makes a grain ancient, and what makes it modern?
BQ: Well, that’s a very good question, because there really isn’t lots of standardization and definition. So I made up my own definition. And to me, an ancient grain is something coming from an ancient civilization. And that’s quite easy to understand and conceptualize. You have heirloom grains which are a little more modern, but still really not a lot of breeding or hybridization or crossing done by man. And those are wheats that are, say, at least…were popular at least 100 years ago, or before World War II.
And after World War II, there was a real effort to spur the yield and the abundance of wheat, and to make it cheap. The government has a very strong policy on cheap food and abundant food, and it’s been yield at all costs. And even though now we have very cheap food and very abundant food in this country and are very well fed, I don’t think we’re very well nourished anymore, because we’ve gone so far into the industrial models that we have left behind many of those things that added nourishment to our food.
TM: Well, yeah, and then not only that, wheat allergies—i.e., people think they’re gluten intolerant, which is something from wheat. Any thoughts on that? I keep asking about it because it seems like it’s a modern phenomenon.
BQ: Well, it is.
TM: And I keep wondering [if] it has something to do with “modern wheat.”
BQ: Well, I think definitely it does. You’ve got celiac disease, which is a gluten intolerance. It’s life or death for some people. But it’s only one percent of the population, and it’s a little under debate if that’s been growing or not; it seems as [if] it’s been growing a little bit. But what’s been exploding is wheat sensitivities. And it’s not just the gluten. Gluten is certainly a part of it, but there’s other aspects that probably are related to the way the wheat has been changed.
And different reports say that between 12 and 20 percent of the population are affected by this. And the wheat-free, gluten-free markets are just going gangbusters with people looking [for] alternatives because they don’t feel well when they eat modern wheat. And yet, when those same people eat ancient grains and heirloom grains, in most cases they have a better experience and they don’t feel the bloating or the cramps or sometimes the inflammation and achy joints that they feel when they eat modern wheat products.
So I think there’s definitely a relationship. We have increased the yields at the farm level with modern wheat. We’ve increased the levels of yields at the milling level and certainly—and the most significant one as far as change goes—we’ve changed the protein, and the gluten, that is, and the starch complex so that bakers can make more loaves of bread with less wheat by adding more air to it and having that gluten be able to trap and contain more air so the bread rises higher and higher all the time. But yet, it’s becoming less and less digestible with all those changes.
And another change they’re making, they’re using fast-rising yeast, which causes the bread to go into the oven much sooner, and the pre-digestion that is actually part of the sourdough process is almost eliminated. The fast-rising yeast only has time to digest just the sugar added to make the carbon dioxide gas to raise the bread, and it doesn’t have time to start breaking down gluten and starch complexes. But with sourdough, a 24-hour sourdough fermentation will destroy 97 percent of the gluten in the flour, and it makes it into compounds that are easy to digest. It’s like pre-digestion for you. And that’s another difference, not only in the breeding but also in the manufacturing, that has compromised, for some people, their ability to eat modern wheat.
TM: Well, Bob, thank you so much for that explanation, because I have my own sourdough that I started about 18 years ago, and I’ve had my friends tell me that they do so much better on my sourdough bread than they do on regular bread, but I’ve never had any way of explaining it. So I knew there was some connection there. And goodness, I think that you just demonstrated that you know a lot about wheat. How about… We have Montana going in and out of drought. How is Kamut doing with regards to drought? And is it able to handle unpredictable weather that we seem to be having to live with now?
BQ: Well, that’s a very good question. It certainly has some drought resistance. But as far as the climate change goes, I tell people this is one of the big pushes I’ve made for organic agricultural systems, because they thrive on diversity. They’re stable because of diversity. And diversity is so important if we’re going to have extremes in weather or diseases or anything that comes to attack your crop. And the more diverse the crop is, or the number of crops are on your farm, the more chance you have to weather some of those storms.
With the Kamut brand wheat, it’s a “land race.” That means, Theresa, it’s not a pure line; it’s made up of many closely related types of wheat that form a stable population, but not a pure population. That means that some of the members of that population are going to be more resistant and more susceptible to heat or cold or hot or dry or diseases or whatever. And it gives a certain stability that it can survive at least a certain amount of attack by any of these adverse conditions.
So one of things that we’re doing on our farm in response… You know, farmers don’t have the privilege—or the luxury, I should say—to debate climate change; we have to respond to it, because we see it happening. So there’s no debate here. I grew 30-pound watermelons last year, dryland, on my farm as experiments, and when I was a kid, I never had anything over the size of a softball. So you can’t tell me something’s not different.
But what I’m doing with the Kamut brand grain and the Khorasan—and Khorasan is the common name for it—I’m starting to plant it in the fall and look for winter hardiness, because our spring crops are becoming higher and higher at risk because our heat comes sooner and the rain stops sooner. And yet our fall crops, because they’re more advanced when the rain stops and the heat hits, they’re able to be alright and be okay—they’re past their tender stage. And so we’re looking at planting… Normally crops that did not survive the winter, now are surviving some of our winters. And if they can get a head start in the spring, it’s going to be a big advantage. So that’s some of the research that we’re looking at on our farm, at least, in responding to this problem.
TM: If you’re just joining us, you’re listening to Rootstock Radio, and I’m Theresa Marquez. And I’m here today with organic farmer Bob Quinn, a progressive leader in promoting organic and sustainable agriculture throughout the most remarkable state of Montana. And we’re talking about a kind of wheat that is trademarked by Bob, called Kamut.
And you were talking about how your springs in Montana are changing and that you’re actually experimenting with planting it in the fall. So how long have you been doing that? Are you finding that that’s a good strategy?
BQ: Well, I…yes and no. So we’ve been doing it about three years. The first year we just found some heads that had survived the winter, and I picked those and planted them the next fall, thinking that maybe I had found some winter hardiness resistance here, or winter-hardy genes or something. But when I compared that to just a bin run of the Khorasan, there wasn’t much difference in the winter loss. They both were about 60 percent loss. But for the grain that survived, the yield is about two or three times what is normally planted in the spring. So it’s a huge, huge difference.
The other thing that I’ve started doing now is I’ve got Khorasan lines from all over the world that I’m comparing. So I have about 150 lines. I started about two years ago comparing from all of what USDA had in their Small Grains Collection in Idaho. I’ve been to Russia, to St. Petersburg, at the Vavilov Institute, and they gave me a couple dozen of their lines of Khorasan. The last few years I’ve been traveling to Israel, doing experiments there with organic farmers, and they’ve given me a couple dozen lines, most of which came out of the seed bank in Syria that was destroyed in the recent conflicts.
And I’m comparing all of those; I’m comparing all of those. And I’ve found that several are coming through the winters quite strongly. And this is a pretty exciting development for me. And we’re right in the beginning of that research.
TM: So, Bob, it’s so exciting to hear you being so involved. And so many farmers are also researchers, and that’s pretty neat. I was especially thrilled to hear that you also convinced Senator Tester in your own state to grow Kamut.
BQ: Yeah, actually I helped Jon convert his farm to organic just a year or two after we did so. We’ve been friends and neighbors—he’s actually on the other side of the town of Big Sandy than I am on, but we’ve served on the school board together and have been good friends for many years. And he was an early convert to organic when we first started experimenting, so it was fun to work with him.
TM: Well, it’s pretty wonderful to know that we have a senator in D.C. who we can relate to as an organic farmer. Well, you know, for our listeners, Bob’s been called a “farming futurist,” and definitely you can see he’s so deeply involved in Kamut, in wheat, in Montana, and just experimenting and researching. But I was so excited to hear also, Bob, that you’ve done a lot with alternative energy. In fact, you were probably one of the first—it looked like in 1988 you got an award from AERO, which is the Alternative Energy Resource Organization. Tell us a little bit about your alternative energy work in Montana.
BQ: Well, that covers quite a bit of different areas too. I was interested to grow my own fuel. And it didn’t take me long, however, to see the cost of doing that. I started with some oil seeds that I could use for a diesel substitute, and by the time I got done with it and making biodiesel, the cost of all that was really almost prohibitive for a farmer to try to do.
But I stumbled on the idea of using high-oleic safflower, which is the best kind of oil for your heart and for high-temperature cooking. And I found that I could sell that to restaurants, and we supply now the oil needs of Montana State and University of Montana kitchens. And we bring back the oil from the University of Montana and clean it up, and not make biodiesel—just dewater it and filter it, and we put in our tractors directly as straight vegetable oil. And we’re using one tractor that’s been converted to do that. It starts on diesel, runs on vegetable oil once it gets a heat exchanger going, and heats that oil up to 160 degrees. It can run all day just fine. And then at night we switch it off, over to diesel again, so it can start on diesel the next morning.
And so that’s one area that we’ve been recycling our oil. We use the oil that we grow on our farm first for food and then for fuel. I think it really is a great answer to the food versus fuel debate. And that covers about 12 percent of our fuel needs right now. We’re still working out kinks and trying to expand it.
And the other venture I was involved with is building—or designing at least—Montana’s first wind park with cousins of mine and friends from Germany who I visited on my travels over there. And I invited them to come to Montana to build a wind park, and they did. And it was the first one, and it’s been successful. And we wanted to make sure the first one wasn’t the last one, so we did everything we could to have it done right. And I’m really proud and happy to say that it was and it’s a successful adventure. Many others have copied it since. So those are a couple of things I’ve been involved with as renewable energy, at least.
TM: Yeah, you’ve done so much, Bob, and I’m so glad that you were able to say a little bit about how everything’s all connected here. And how exciting that you can actually recycle or not throw out used oil and use it for fuel. So that’s a very inspiring way of thinking of what I think people are now calling the circular economy.
So, Bob, I had a talk with another Montanan, Liz Carlisle. And I know you’ve been working on a book with her called Grain by Grain. How’s that coming along? And what can you tell us about the book?
BQ: Well, it’s been just two weeks of release. It’s been printed now. I hope to see my first copy when I go to Washington for a Farmer Fly-in I’m lobbying at for here, next week. And the release date is the fifth of March, but you can already go online or even to your local bookstore and do advanced orders and it’s available. It’s been a great fun. Liz is an amazing, talented writer. I tried to write a book for five years, and then, after being rejected by one of my publisher friends, I kind of put it on the shelf. And then Liz ended up in my pickup on a field day one time about two years ago, and I said, “Hey, Liz, what would you thinking about throwing in together and writing a book together?” She said, “Sure!” And she did in five months what I couldn’t do in five years. So I really appreciate her help.
And it’s all about the high cost of cheap food and what we can do in this country to change our eating and our food systems to more sustainability among farmers, so they’re not going broke, more sustainable rural communities so that they’re not drying up, and a more sustainable planet by not polluting it. And then finally, and probably the biggest, is a healthier population, a healthier society, because of eating better and higher nutritious food.
TM: Well, wow, you hit an awful lot on the nail there. And I see that you have a blog, Bob, where you started writing about this. And I read your first blog post on it and I was really taken with it. First of all, starting out with talking about all the risks that farmers have to face, and so asking the question: “So with all these risks, why would you even consider being a farmer?” And I thought your answer almost made me want to cry a little bit, and that was: “Because we love it.” All this that you’ve been doing, [do you] still love farming, Bob?
BQ: Oh yes, oh yes. You know what I’m doing now, Theresa? Now that I’m starting to get on the retirement end of things, I’m already retiring, but I’m changing what I do. So I’ve leased out my farm to some of our best employees here, and now they’re taking it over here in the last year, continuing the organic tradition. And we’ve moved more families back to the land—I’m really excited about that. But now I’m focusing on growing everything I eat and eating everything I grow. And I find that very challenging and very fun and very satisfying.
TM: Very satisfying.
BQ: Yeah, it is. And so my blog that you mentioned, anyone of course can tune it at BobQuinnOrganicFarmer.com and they can follow what we’re trying to do with all that project. And the book too, the book tours also.
TM: BobQuinnOrganicFarmer.com, and you won’t be disappointed. This blog post really was very inspirational for me. I really so appreciate the kinds of points that you’re making, and particularly that there’s no such thing as cheap food. We are paying and paying and paying for it over and over in so many ways. And I think that you say it as well as anyone has said it. So I will definitely recommend it to all the listeners out there: BobQuinnOrganicFarmer.com. And I really, really enjoyed it.
BQ: Yup, and Grain by Grain is our new book. And that’s available at Amazon and in your favorite bookstore.
TM: Yeah, and I think you really nail it so well, all the things that we should be paying attention to, we citizen eaters out there. So, Bob, it’s been so great to talk with you today.
BQ: Thank you!
TM: What’s your next big adventure that you’re going to do?
BQ: Well, I’m investigating a subterranean greenhouse. I was just visiting this fellow that’s working on the designs, and I can buy kits from him in Alliance, Nebraska. And I can grow citrus, lemons, and oranges and grapefruit right here in Montana five feet under the ground with an acrylic top and using the heat of the earth to protect it in the winter and grow year-round. I’m quite excited about that. So that’s my next big adventure, at least.
TM: Well, Bob, I’m looking forward to seeing you in March. And of course I’ll be keeping my eye open for that big ten-gallon hat and that beautiful Kamut wheat that you always have in your hat. Wishing you the very best and, of course, to you and all of your beautiful family.
BQ: Well, I appreciate it very much. Come and see us now sometime.
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