Grain By Grain
This is the fascinating story of Dr. Bob Quinn’s career, that also contains an important nutritional nugget about heritage wheat for people with foods sensitivities. I’ll summarize that first, then describe his decades of contributions.
I had read in the past that some people who think they have gluten sensitivities may actually be intolerant to modern hybridized wheat, which was developed to improve crop yields. That is confirmed in this book in an interesting way. Dr. Quinn pioneered the heritage variety of wheat “kamut”, which was originally thought to be Egyptian (kamut is an ancient Egyptian word for wheat) but later found to be khorasan wheat from Mesopotamia. This wheat has actually been trademarked, so the term kamut may only be used if a specific set of growing practices have been followed, including organic farming, and they heritage grain may not be crossed with any other wheat.
As for the food intolerances, He met a doctor in Italy that had patients with symptoms of gluten sensitivity, and she wondered if his heritage wheat would help. Italians did not jump on gluten-free as enthusiastically as Americans, because they love their traditional wheat pasta. It turns out kamut makes great tasting pasta, which has been enthusiastically adopted in Italy. And Dr. Quinn, together with this colleague in Italy, teamed up with researchers at the University of Bologna to study the health effects of kamut. It not only helps with food sensitivities, but has other health benefits like lowering cholesterol, compared to a control group eating modern wheat. Dr. Quinn doesn’t recommend this for anyone with celiac disease, but if you have mild symptoms of gluten sensitivity, kamut might be a more flavorful alternative to gluten free. Kamut International, founded by Dr. Quinn, still ships a lot of their wheat to Italy. I have tried it in Nature’s path Heritage flakes cereal, which is delicious. Sourdough bread made with kamut is also supposed to be nutritious, and the sourdough process also makes bread that is considerably lower in gluten than yeast bread. There are many recipes online for those that make their own bread. I found one source to order it from online, but it is a bit pricey.
Dr. Quinn grew up on a farm in the small town of Big Sandy, Montana, and did a PhD in plant science at UC Davis. He tried some urban jobs with his training, but they were unfulfilling so he decided to go back to his 2400 acre family farm in Montana. He was dissatisfied with the conventional farming situation, both the use of chemicals and the fact that farmers are caught in the middle between large companies supplying the seed and chemicals, and other large companies buying the grain as a commodity. And he was saddened to see how Big Sandy had deteriorated since his because farms had gotten much larger and a lot of the local family farmers had left. So he wanted to try something different like sustainable organic farming practices, and also looking for alternative ways to market farm products rather than treating them as commodities.
Kamut came out of a handful of seeds he had acquired at a county fair, along with the legend that is was ancient Egyptian wheat that had come from “King Tut’s tomb”. Dr. Quinn planted the seeds and harvested the crop, which generated a lot more seeds. That is another big advantage of heritage varieties of plants, farmers can use some of the seeds from last year’s crop instead of buying more seeds. And these seeds turned out to make great tasting wheat. He found a market with artisanal bakers interested in heritage wheat. And eventually he established an international market as well, especially the Italian market mentioned. He wanted to share this seed with other growers, but also wanted to protect it from inferior “knock-off” copies. He explains how this has happened in other areas of natural foods, including other heritage wheats. That is why he trademarked the name Kamut. The company he founded, Kamut International, now provides a market for any farmer following the approved growing practices.
This experience prompted him to pursue getting the title “organic” certified in Montana, one of the first states to do so, and he also was involved in working with USDA to get US certification for the term organic. That was an interesting story, as there were industry lobbyists who tried to get things like irradiated and genetically-modified foods under organic, but a lot of public pressure fought that off.
Dr. Quinn has spent his career pioneering sustainable farming techniques and helping to bring back rural jobs growing healthy foods. One of the last examples in the book is organically growing high-oleic safflower oil, a healthier alternative higher in monounsaturated fats. He contracted with a local university to cook with i in their student cafeterias, and then get the used oil back to run his tractors. My mechanical engineer’s heart loves this type of efficient resource use.
This is an interesting and inspiring book.
The Lentil Underground
Liz Carlisle was Dr. Quinn’s co-author of Grain By Grain. Her previous book, The Lentil Underground was about a diverse group of farmers, also from Montana, who chose not to participate in the conventional farming economy, instead practicing sustainable farming techniques, and finding their own ways to market their products. One of these products is organic lentils. This may be starting to sound like a story about a bunch of California hippies, but I wasn’t kidding when I said diverse. One of the heroes of the story, David Oien, of Conrad, Montana, seemed to meet the stereotype, at least in his youth. But others are much closer to right-wing libertarians than left-wing hippies. What they share is a passion for sustainable farming. This in itself was an inspiring example to me of how what we have in common can outweigh our differences.
Dave returned from college to his family farm with a degree in philosophy in the turbulent times not long after the end of the Vietnam war. He first convinced his father to install solar hot water collectors on the family farm, but did not get him to convert the whole farm to his decidedly unconventional ideas. Instead, his Dad compromised by letting him experiment with 15 percent of the farms acreage. Dave set out to convert this land to “solar-powered”, not dependent on agricultural chemicals derived from fossil fuels. One of the first projects was raising cattle on a mix of organically grown cover crops. He found a market with the “Bozeman community co-op” to sell organic beef. This was at a time when there was no organic certification. He looked into taking cattle to a USDA-inspected slaughterhouse, and was informed it was illegal for him to slap an organic label on packages of meat because that was not language recognized or approved by the USDA. So bureaucracy derailed his first promising enterprise.
Undeterred, he went on to join a ragtag collection of farmers just starting to learn about alternative forms of agriculture. At a conference he heard a talk from an agroecology expert on how three sisters farming was still practiced in Latin America, and the whole concept of soil-building with green manure. He and fellow farmers eventually came up Timeless Seeds, which markets a “gourmet line of certified organic Lentils, Peas, Chickpeas, and Ancient Grains”.
There were some amusing stories of misadventures along the way also. One of the lentil farmers also had cattle. He planted lentils as part of a cover crop and then let the cows eat them, which they loved. But then the next year he tried growing a special variety of lentils as a cash crop. Let’s just say if you let your cows develop a taste for lentils, you’d better make sure you have good fencing.
It was a long haul to make a success with this unconventional farming and marketing, but it culminated, after decades, in the climactic story of the harvest of 2012, This was a record drought year in the United States, and these are dryland farmers (no irrigation). But due to their hard-earned high quality soil, the diverse group of crops was financially successful, in a year in which most conventional farmers in the area had to write off their crops as a total loss.
I love inspiring grass-roots success stories like these, and the knowledge that small victories like this are happening around the world. I have recently read the encouraging news that in recent years, for the first time in decades, small family farms in the US are on the rise. It will take more to get it to scale up, like getting the USDA to stop subsidizing poor conventional farming practices, and hopefully instead support regenerative agriculture. But useful change often starts bottom-up.