Organic Questions & Answers with Bob Quinn

Our monthly book club continued our intimate setting for participants to ask Bob Quinn all about organic questions and answers. We loved hearing his take on some major issues around organic farming.

Read on below for a few of the questions that came up in Linley’s recap letter below:


Dear Friend,

We had an outstanding gathering to address organic questions and answers with Montana farmer Bob Quinn and our Real Friends last Thursday during our book club.

A friend in attendance wrote me to say that she much prefers the intimate nature of our gatherings compared to a formal presentation. This allows us to feel like we actually get to know our fantastic guests as friends.

I’m always so impressed by the questions from the audience. This week I’d like to share a few of those excellent questions and Bob‘s responses.

I come from a family of teachers who have all taught me I must repeat something a minimum of 4 times, in different ways, before others start to remember and learn. So even if you attended last Thursday, read a few of the highlights that we’ve captured, and then go teach a friend a few of the lessons that came out of that excellent discussion.

I hope you enjoy Bob‘s words as much as I did.

Organic Q&A:

“How has organic farming helped fill that desire to re-populate rural communities across the country?”

Bob Quinn’s Answer:

“Organic takes more workers, it requires more labor. I look at this as an opportunity to offer more jobs. Our farm has offered more opportunities for people to live here and survive here. You can also enter specialty markets and add value. On my own farm we’ve created a food business to make snacks to sell under the Kamut brand. We created an oil-crushing facility that crushes high oleic safflower oil, which is really good for your heart and the best kind of oil for cooking.

I see in our neighborhood, half our farms are gone. Big Sandy has declined from 1,000 to 600. We have pollution all over the country and people can’t even drink the water in Iowa anymore. And the farm children can’t drink the water because it’s so contaminated with nitrates from chemical fertilizers. We have glyphosate in the rain that falls on our farm, which to me is just hideous but it’s everywhere. We’re using so much of these chemicals. They’re pervasive.

But the most serious thing that I think is that we have 60% of our people sick with at least one chronic disease. The CDC says that 60% of the blame for that can be placed right on our diets. So I would say that even though we brag about being the most efficient, and our farmers are growing more than in any other place in the world, the whole system, to me is not a success story.

There are two sides to every coin, and the only side they show you is the production side. But the other side is all those health concerns I just mentioned. And that’s what I see. I’m hoping it’s starting to be an incentive to rethink where we’re headed and where we’re going. And I just hope that it can be done fast enough.”


“What chance do you think we have of getting more significant support to build out regional food systems in the upcoming farm bill.”


Bob Quinn’s Answer:

“First and foremost, local food is food security.

I’ll tell you what I’d like to see. I’d like to see the state and federal governments set aside enough state and federal land in each county to feed that county. They should have ways to encourage and support farmers who could raise some of that food on those lands. We need to think about some new ideas on this.

The industrial model is all about consolidation and centralization.

They use, as an excuse, efficiency as their holy grail because its going to lower your price, so we’re going to have cheap food. And they tout cheap food as the solution to everything.

Well the truth is, that cheap food comes at a very high price, but we don’t pay it at the checkout counter.

We pay it at the doctor’s office and when we don’t feel good and by losing work days. No one talks about that! The pollution around the country and the dead zone in the gulf of Mexico, all of this should be factored into this cheap food price and you’ll see we don’t have cheap food. Our food is very, very expensive. When you talk about cheap food we have to talk about the price of health care. We need to focus on combining food and health and then it becomes a very different picture.”


“So why can’t we get a little more federal research money?”


Real Friend Question Continued:

“I raise blueberries. Organic blueberries need eight pounds of nitrogen for a crop. We put on two. So the soils are generating six pounds. And I asked the soil microbiologist where did this six pounds of nitrogen come from? There’s a mycorrhizae called ericoid that’s specific to blueberries. And he said, ‘I don’t know.’ I said, ‘But it had to come from somewhere. It didn’t come from me. I put in two.’

I went to agriculture school at Washington University and I was taught that nitrogen comes from legumes. Rhizobia, I think is the microorganism. Blueberries are not legumes so they do not have rhizobia. And I say, ‘So are you telling me this is magic?’ He said, ‘No, I’m not saying that.’

Organics get 1/2 to 1% of the federal agricultural research dollars. Why can’t we increase it to, I don’t know 1%?”


Bob Quinn’s Answer:

Research should be ahead, it should be where we’re going, not where we’ve been.

“I think you’re on the right track. Wonderful. I use that line all the time. The amount of organic food in this country is 6% of the total. And the federal research for organic is only 1/2 to 1%.

We aren’t even keeping up with the current trend. Research and science by definition should be leading and not following. The farmers are not able to keep up with the demand in this country, so we’re bringing in organic food from who knows where to meet the demand.

Many of my neighbors would be more interested in converting to organic and changing if they felt more comfortable about where to start. And if you have a problem that comes up, like a pesky, perennial weed, what do you do about it?

Research is the key to answering those things. And yet, we have foot draggers. At least organic is on the radar now. I mean, it used to be zero when we first started, but I think it should be 10.

Research should be ahead, it should be where we’re going, not where we’ve been. We’re not even keeping up with the marketplace!

Farmers are going broke with the commodity markets. Why don’t we give them a chance to come into the organic field?

The extension services are woefully short on people that can advise for organic in most states.

And farmers, their backs are against the wall financially. Most of them can’t afford to make a big mistake and they can’t afford to experiment. And for me, experimentation is fun. I do that instead of going to the coffee shop or going fishing. So it’s great fun. But for most farmers, they don’t know where to start.”


Organic solutions used by conventional farmers


Real Friend Follows Up: “I just want to add that we pointed out three conventional tools that started in organics. Like the pheromone traps for tree fruits… three different technologies that were developed in organic that spread toward conventional. And that still did not sway (the extension agent).”


Bob Quinn Answers:

“That’s a great point. Most of the research that’s done on organic principles can be used easily by non-organic farmers, just even to adopt one little thing. Not to go all organic, but just adopt something to reduce their pesticide or chemical load. And that’s an advantage to them. No one can afford the price of chemicals these days.

But the reverse is not true. The research on chemicals is in no way of use to organic farmers, because we can’t use those chemicals anyway. So it’s very frustrating.

In Montana, the chemical farmers are all having trouble with something called acid soils. Montana soils are naturally alkaline because of low rainfall and the evaporation of dissolved salts on the surface. The ground is naturally alkaline, and we can grow grain just fine on alkaline soils.

But now with chemical fallow and not tilling, the concentration of chemical fertilizers has changed the alkalinity of the soil to acidity. And now we have the same problems that they have in the Midwest… some of the soils are too acid and farmers have to lime them.

Well guess what the solution was here in Montana for the chemical guys? Just buy another chemical! And so farmers are further down the toilet in their expenses. They are buying another chemical to fix a problem that chemicals created in the first place!

You know, Einstein himself said that it’s almost impossible to solve a problem using the same tools and techniques that created the problem. And that’s exactly what they’re doing.”


Organic yields, land use and climate change


Question from Dave Chapman: “The head of the environmental science department at Dartmouth once told me, ‘Well of course organic is worse for the climate because organic takes more land for the same yield, thus you need to clear more land for agriculture,‘ referring to an article published in the journal Nature about lower yields in organic.

Do you have a response to that study that is more sane?”


Bob Quinn Answers: 

“You know, all of that is coming from a growing population and wanting to ‘feed the world.’

People think the only way to feed the world is by extrapolating from what we’re doing now…

… and if you change anything in that you’re going to decrease it.

Well guess what research in Africa and India has shown?

The conversion of small, peasant farms to organic increases their yields 2-3 times.

That’s huge! Most of the world’s population eats locally. It’s only the developed countries that ship their food thousands of miles. The developed world only feeds a third of the population.

Most of the world feeds itself through local agriculture. And most of the local agriculture is not chemical.

But, what’s now happening to local farmers around the world is that big companies have come in and offered money to grow just monocultures of whatever commodity they want to export and they offer big prices and markets to convert to chemical. What’s been lost is local food security, the diversity of crops, and the soil building of organic and ancient systems.

The other side of that is, if you’re worried about having enough food..

Let’s do something about the 40-50% of the food that’s going to waste

What you’ve described is getting back to the humdrum of focusing on yields at the expense of everything else. And of course high yields have produced cheaper food. If you’re just talking about the checkout counter, that’s what we have, but it’s come with so much trouble.

Those reports that isolate just yield are not telling the whole story.

As a county average, our farm is right in the middle for yield. On very wet years the chemical guys surpass us. On average years we are all about the same. But, on very dry years, we are the ones that are surpassing them in yields because all of their chemicals have caused the grain and the plants to dry up way earlier than those that are on regenerative organic soils.

I think those kinds of comparisons need to be broadened. Rodale has done some long term studies that show that organic is not so different from the chemical stuff in yields. You can tell any story you want with scientific research, it’s just how you put it together and there’s people that are not afraid to do that to make themselves look good.”


This is just a sampling of what we all learned last week

What a privilege to tap the workings of these experienced minds! I hope you can join us for future bookclub discussions.

If everyone who reads this letter became a donating Real Friend, we could focus entirely on our educational and certification work, instead of fundraising. Now wouldn’t that be a coup! Imagine what we could do!

We have had requests to:

  • Turn our symposia videos into short snippets for teachers to use as part of their curricula.
  • An online store to feature products from Real Organic farms that will ship to your door.
  • Help our farmers who want support with marketing the label.
  • Use the Real Organic network of farmers to learn from each other.
  • Collaborate with the international organic community that wants to work more closely with us.

The list goes on. There is so much we can to do together. As Bob said, I just hope it can be done fast enough.

Our next bookclub will be with the brilliant chef Dan Barber on Monday, October 3rd. Knowing Dan, that will be a wild ride!

I can’t wait! See you there.

Yours in the dirt,


Image Courtesy of Slow Food Nations

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