Restoring Value to the Food We Eat

Grain by Grain: A Quest to Revive Ancient Wheat, Rural Jobs, and Healthy Food, by Bob Quinn and Liz Carlisle (Island Press, 2019)

Bob Quinn is a third-generation wheat farmer from Big Sandy, Montana, about eighty miles northeast of Great Falls. He earned a PhD in plant biochemistry from the University of California, Davis, became a leader in the organic food movement, developed a group of closely inter-connected food-related businesses, created an ancient-grain business, and sponsored Montana’s first wind farm.

Early in the book he states his premise, that “economics is not just about what happens in faraway boardrooms or on the floor of the stock market. The real measures of economic health are in the fundamental goods that not only make our lives possible but also make them worth living: thriving communities, meaningful work, healthy land. At the center of this fundamental economy are our staple foods, our daily bread. If we hope to recover honest value in American society, we must redeem the original commodity, wheat” (p. 11).

Late in the book Quinn restates his thesis: “a regenerative organic food and agriculture system is the only way out of the chronic disease problems plaguing this country.” The reform he describes “could dramatically reduce the incidence of four of the top seven causes of death in the United States, lift thousands of Americans out of poverty, and fight climate change—all the while slowing the growth of marine dead zones and reversing pollinator decline” (p. 219).

Quinn is committed to the health and vitality of rural communities such as Big Sandy which in the early 1960s, when he was growing up, was a vibrant community with a population of nearly 1,000. It was, he writes, “a hub of activity” with many of the business and community institutions that people needed for their normal activities and services (p. 16). He shows how new chemically-dependent farming policies and practices have made it difficult for such communities to survive. One of his purposes as farmer, business and community leader, and author is to restore vitality to rural communities all over the country, and especially in places like central Montana.

While doing undergraduate studies in botany at Montana State University in Bozeman, he was introduced to ecology as an area of growing importance. During his graduate studies he deepened his knowledge of plant science and also learned major ideas and values of the way of farming that predated the industrialized agriculture introduced following World War II, and that his own family had practiced for many years.

When he decided to return to Montana and farming, Quinn came to understand that farmers like his father were caught in the changes that came about because what they raised—mostly wheat—had become standardized commodities rather than food. Increasing the volume of grain they could raise by using chemical fertilizers and herbicides, became their goal. The nutritional quality of what they raised lost importance and actually declined. Political objectives and economic policies were intended to reduce rural populations significantly, and the new farming methods impoverished the people so they fled—as had happened in Big Sandy.

As Quinn began his own farming career, he found his father to be simultaneously colleague and debate partner. Their debates helped both men understand what was happening and encouraged them to resist the new agriculture and seek to develop ways of farming that were adapted to their climate, soil, plants, and livestock and could thrive under those conditions.

Quinn established relationships with several farm-related organizations and became increasingly committed to values promulgated by the organic food movement, inspired by the Rodale Institute in Pennsylvania. In order to advance and protect organic farming on the scale required by wheat growers like himself, he became politically active, shaping legislation that would define and protect the kind of farming and food that he believed in.

Along the way, Quinn began studying the energy inputs needed to grow food, comparing them with the energy outputs of the crops they raised. As a result, he found a plant adapted to his climate and soil that he could grow and turn into biofuel that would reduce these fuel imputs. Realizing that wind farms would work wonderfully well where he lived, he created necessary legislation and business leadership to establish such farms in his wind-swept part of the world.

When he was in high school (1964), someone at the county fair gave Quinn a few grains of kamut, an ancient wheat. Years later, when he was well established in his main career, he explored the origin and properties of this wheat. Discovering that it possessed highly desirable properties that had disappeared from commodity wheat, he developed seed stock and networks of farmers to produce it on a large scale. He also developed business relationships to market it around the world (one of which is Bob’s Red Mill Natural Foods of Milwaukie, Oregon, whose products, including this wheat, I can buy three blocks from my home in downtown Indianapolis).

Grain by Grain is a personal story of one man’s career as farmer, environmentalist, community leader, and business leader. Quinn writes well, includes much factual material and ethical conviction, and commands the reader’s interest all along the way. The way of life for America’s farmers and food suppliers that he describes is radically different from patterns prevailing today.

Yet near the end of the book he gives a reason why we can believe that Americans may rise up to reverse what he describes as the plundering of the American people by corporate powers. “As value subtraction comes home to roost in our bodies, it may be that concern for our health is what will finally motivate us all to do something about it” (224). In the final six pages of the book he provides evidence that this transformation is now beginning to take place.

Liz Carlisle, who also grew up in Montana, is a lecturer in the School of Environmental Sciences at Stanford University. In the book’s prologue she describes how she became acquainted with Quinn and his work and offered to help him write a book about what he was doing. She helped him with some of the research and writing but left “her first-person voice aside” so that readers would “get to know this green economy cowboy” for themselves (xvi).

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