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Organic Farming "Isn't that fun"

A farmer-researcher gives a tour of his lab


September 23, 2016

Teresa Getten

Bob Quinn is an organic farmer, researcher and world traveler who believes diet is a major reason so many Americans are in poor health.

"The amount of illness and chronic illness and autoimmune disease - all those things - I think are tied with our poor diet. We are very well-fed - we are not very well nourished. And this is why we're having so much trouble with health," he said.

High health costs can be greatly curbed, Quinn said, by paying more for quality food.

"Rather than just pour money into health care and enable people to buy more expensive pills, why don't we help them eat better and plant in their mind that they can spend a little more at the grocery store and save a lot more on medical bills?" Quinn said.

For Quinn, eating cheap food is analogous to exotic car owners putting cheap fuel in their cars, except worse.

"The human body is the most expensive thing that's ever been created, and yet we want to put in cheap fuel, the cheapest we can find, and think that's OK," he said. "And then we wonder why it doesn't function exactly right. This is insane."

Quinn is a 70-year-old with the energy and exuberance of someone half his age. He comes from a line of farmers and has a passion for growing natural food and trying to figure out how to do things people say are not supposed to be done.

"You know what I have fun with? Doing things that people say are insane," he said, smiling.

He graduated University of California, Davis, in 1976 with a doctorate in plant biochemistry. And he spent some time in a research laboratory, lab coats, beakers and all. But he said that wasn't for him, so he came back home to his Big Sandy, Montana, farm, where his great-grandfather settled and homesteaded in 1916, to tinker in a different kind of laboratory.

"Now my whole farm is my laboratory."

Quinn wasn't always an organic farmer. That started in 1986 because chemical farming had some downsides.

"I never liked the spray - I never liked the smell of it," he said, referring to herbicides. "I didn't like it on my clothes. I had imagined being able to grow chemical-free crops by using natural biological controls and rotations and soil building things to eliminate both fertilizers and chemicals. To me, that was a great challenge, to figure that out. Because when I first started, there weren't that many people doing it."

But it's more than the lack of spray Quinn likes about organic farming - there's an appeal to it being bigger than himself.

"It's profitable, it's ethical, and it helps heal the earth and make people healthier," he said. "And it's more fun and more profitable for the farmers."

One such "crazy idea" Quinn is tinkering with is dry land vegetables and fruits, growing fruits and vegetables without irrigation.

"We can grow wheat, grains fine, but we don't grow many vegetables in Montana, except for those valleys where they irrigate," he said. "Experience shows that every town in this state can be growing vegetables for their own community. I'm doing it without any irrigation, just with the rain water that we get at 10, 14 inches a year."

Citing the recent water troubles in California, Quinn foresees a future where water scarcity will lead to serious problems - "the biggest undeclared war we will have in this country will be over water" - and agriculture will be one of the biggest losers of those wars.

Quinn had a visitor from Austria - a political activist and author - staying with him and his wife Saturday and Sunday. On Saturday, he gave a tour of his farm.

The first stop was the field in front of his home, where he's growing six varieties of potatoes, five varieties of squash and black corn.

"How many cornfields do you see in Montana?" he said.

The rows of potatoes and squash are 3 feet apart and each plant is 3 feet from the next. The reason for the distance, Quinn said, is so the plants can gather enough water while still remaining nutritious.

While he talked, Quinn bent down, stuck his hand in the dirt and pulled out three potatoes, one of which was as big as a softball. He held the potatoes up proudly, grinning, showing off the result of his labor.

"Isn't this fun?" he said.

During the tour, Quinn said that sentence at least four times, each time with the same excitement and giddiness as the first time.

It was time to move on.

"Now, let me show you my orchard," he said.

As he led the way to the orchard, Quinn talked about the row of pine trees that run parallel to his driveway, and how efficiently they block the wind. He also touched on the topics of coulees and rivers and caves with pictographs in semi-secret places "most people don't even know about."

Once in the orchard, he took a right turn toward an apple tree. He picked a few off the ground - "they just flew off the tree" - and passed one out to each of his visitors. After the satisfying response, Quinn smiled and said, "Now see - this is why we do these things." He then bit into his own apple.

Next up was a plum tree.

"This is my favorite plum tree" - Quinn handed out plums - "How is that? Isn't that yummy?"

The group stood, eating their plums, half-eaten apples in the other hand, while Quinn explained that the plum everyone was eating was a free-stone plum - "most plums, when you eat them, you have to suck the flesh off the seed."

Not these plums, he said.

Quinn is never at a loss for words. He thinks everyone should be having as much fun as he is, and everyone should enjoy their vocation like he does his.

Typical of someone who loves challenges and always looking for ways to improve things, Quinn was standing in front of a cherry bush talking about why it bothered him that Montanans were drinking orange juice.

"Now imagine this: if you combine sweet apple juice - with all the sugar and everything - with sour cherry juice, that you can't hardly stand to drink by yourself, cause it is so sour, but all loaded with anti-oxidants and all kinds of vitamins and everything," he said.

That combination would be better than orange juice, Quinn said, not just because of its nutritional value, but also for economic reasons.

"We're drinking orange juice every day and there's not a single orange tree within 1,000 miles of Montana. So why are we drinking that stuff?" he asked. "We can support our own farmers and our own localities with businesses that create our own food. We don't have oranges here. We have apples, which are delicious, and sour cherries that can be extremely nutritious and healthy for vitamins and minerals and anti-oxidants. If you combine those two, you can make a new breakfast drink that can substitute for something we can't grow. This is the idea."

In the garden, which is on the other side of the house, the Quinns are growing cucumbers, purple potatoes, mint, ground cherries, lemon verbena and cherry tomatoes. He talked about how he mixed the lemon verbena and the mint to put in his tea. He found it strange that one cucumber had wrapped around the chicken wire and grown over it.

Next stop was the oil barn, where he once milked cows and fed pigs.

Quinn grabbed the handle on the red and white door and slid it back. With the barn door out of the way, two French doors appeared.

This was not a typical barn.

The oil barn is a little factory where safflower seeds are ground up, the oil is packaged to be sold, and the shells compressed into long straw-shaped elements, which are dropped in a truck and shipped to organic dairy farmers to feed to their cows..

Quinn has a lot of praises for safflower.

"It's good for your heart, it's good for your skin, and it takes a long time before you have to replace it," he said. "I put it on my corn, use it for salads, use it for frying."

The last stop was the garage, where one of his workers had just dropped a bucket of oil while changing the oil on a tractor. He had black smudges all over his face.

Teresa Getten

Quinn has a tractor that he had converted to run on vegetable oil instead of conventional oil. He said the oil comes from restaurants. Running farm equipment on vegetable oil was another thing he was passionate about.

"We can duplicate this all over Montana," he said. "If we use oil first for food, and second for fuel, you get two uses out of it. And if it came back to the farms that grew it in the first place, those farms can be running their machinery independently of fuel."

The EPA has not approved vegetable oil use in machinery because it hasn't put it through the expensive testing process, Quinn said. But he's using it, and he hopes one day the trend will spread.

"Isn't this fun?" he said.


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