Quinn Farm and Ranch

Quinn Farm and Ranch

Quinn Farm & Ranch

Bob Quinn, Quinn Farm and Ranch, Big Sandy, Montana. Credit: Kamut International.

All the time I was growing up in the decades I can remember, we have a more or less an eleven year drought cycle. We would have a drought, one or two years in eleven. The drought that started in the late nineties, and went to ’05 or ’06 was not followed by a wet year until last year. That seven-year drought, that’s extremely unusual. And then last year was extremely wet. I mean like almost double our normal rainfall. And this winter has been quite cold again, more like what we used to have, thirty-five, forty below zero. We haven’t had a winter like this for twenty years probably. This is the kind of variability that I’m talking about.

Bob Quinn

Quinn Farm & Ranch

Northern Great Plains Region | Big Sandy, MT

Main Product: Grains

Scale: 4000 acres under management

Featured Resilience Behaviors:

Drop sensitive crops, shift to fall-planted crops, continue to adjust crop rotation sequence, add cover crop cocktails and livestock, explore potential for no-till.

This story is based on a 2013 interview.

The Quinn Farm and Ranch is near the town of Big Sandy in the “Golden Triangle” of north-central Montana. The climate in this shortgrass prairie region is cold — temperatures can drop as low as forty below in winter — and dry, averaging between eight and twelve inches of rainfall, which falls mostly in May and June. Bob Quinn grew up working on his family’s 2,400-acre wheat and cattle ranch established by his grandfather in 1928. After going away to college, Bob returned home with a PhD in plant biochemistry to take over management of the farm and ranch in 1978. Disenchanted with unstable commodity prices, he established Montana Flour and Grains in 1983 and begin direct marketing his wheat to bakeries. Two years later Bob sold the cattle business so that he could focus on grain production and marketing, purchased a grain mill to add wholegrain flour to his product line and began marketing grain for his neighbors. Requests from buyers for organic grains got him interested in developing organic production methods for dryland grains and in 1987, Bob harvested his first crop of certified organic grains. Just two years later, the entire Quinn Farm and Ranch was certified organic.

Today, Bob owns and manages 4,000 acres of certified organic land producing food grains in a full tillage dryland production system. He manages a diverse nine-year rotation designed to build soil quality, produce crop nutrients and manage pests. The rotation includes five years of cash crops (barley, winter and spring wheat, Indian corn seed and safflower) and four years of cover crops (alfalfa, clover, peas and buckwheat). The grains and pulses produced on the farm are marketed through Montana Flour and Grains and the Kamut brand to national and international wholesale markets.

An active researcher throughout his life, Bob has worked for many years to develop new organic farming methods and crops in collaboration with Montana State University and at his own research facility on the Quinn Farm. In the 1980s, he successful commercialized Khorasan wheat, a heirloom variety, under the Kamut trademark. Current research at the Quinn Research Farm is focused on ways to enhance the food and energy self-reliance of north-central Montana. Bob is developing a certified organic dryland cropping system that produces locally-adapted, vegetables and fruits as well as the fertilizer and fuel needed to produce and process the vegetables and fruits. Other investigations currently underway include community-based biofuel production, novel oilseeds for fuel and lubricants, improving grain crop rotations and weed management, and developing salt-tolerant vegetable cultivars.

Thinking about production challenges over the forty-plus years that he has been managing grain production at the Quinn Farm, Bob has seen some changes in weather over the last two decades. The growing season has lengthened, temperatures and precipitation are more variable, temperatures are warmer and dry periods and heat waves are more common. These changes have disrupted an eleven-year drought cycle that has long been typical for the region. Bob explains, “There are more dry periods and drought, more warm temperatures and more heat waves, and there’s less cold temperatures until this winter [2013–14]. In the last thirty-six years, we’ve had three pretty bad droughts and two pretty wet seasons, extremely wet. So we skipped one of our wet periods in the eleven-year drought cycle.”

These changes, particularly the longer periods of drought and more frequent heat waves, required Bob to replace alfalfa, the main cover crop in his rotation for many years, with more drought-resistant species. “We started out using only alfalfa as a soil-building crop, and it worked out just fantastic until we entered our first major drought,” Bob recalls. “We were affected by the drought a whole year earlier than all of our neighbors because alfalfa sucks so much water out of the ground. For one year, the drought actually wiped us out, so we gave up on alfalfa and went to peas as a green manure crop.” Peas seemed like a good choice because they will grow enough, even in a drought year, to cover the ground and protect the soil from wind erosion and loss of water through evaporation. But after the switch, weeds began to increase and grain protein content started to drop, says Bob. “So then we went to a combination of peas and alfalfa and then we also added clover and buckwheat. The clover is a two-year biannual crop, alfalfa’s a three-year crop, and peas are a one-year crop. We added buckwheat to the rotation as a plow-down green manure crop, so now we have as much diversity in cover crops as we do in our cash crops.” Bob also dropped one cash crop, lentils, from his crop rotation, because of its sensitivity to high temperatures and drought.

The performance of the new crop rotation over the last decade has reinforced Bob’s appreciation for the benefits of crop diversity. “I’m very, very solid and sold on the importance of diversity as the weather has become more erratic. Some crops will do better than others, depending on when the rains come, and when the heat comes, and when the cold comes. It is all becoming more erratic, so you never know which year it’s going to be. All those crops will react a little differently, some will do better, some will do worse, but if you have a big diversity, then you can save a lot of your income and your harvest overall.”

Although Bob is satisfied with the performance of the mix of his crop rotation, he continues working to fine-tune the order the crops appear in the rotation to enhance yields and soil quality. “We’ve designed the crop rotation to have all types of different crops feeding and taking from the soil over the course of nine years,” he explains. “Now we’re working more on the order, trying to work out which crop best follows another crop. We’re also starting to look at some companion cropping and the use of no-till on the farm. All of this ties into soil health. We believe if you have good soil health, then you’ll have good plant health, and if you have good plant health, you’re going to have good people health.”

Thinking about the future, Bob is concerned about how more variable precipitation might affect crop production on the farm. “I’m a little bit worried about the water,” he says. “The long-term climate models show us getting warmer and wetter, but I don’t see the wetter happening yet for our region. Water is always a challenge because we’re in a semi-arid region. That means we’re always short. Normally that’s the limiting factor in crop production here, so we’re always looking for ways to conserve water, to catch more water that falls in the land.”

Bob appreciates the increased infiltration and water holding capacity achieved with his soil-building program, but is actively looking for ways to capture and store more rainfall, particularly during summer thunderstorms. He is also looking for different ways to conserve water because he believes that conflicts over water supplies are likely to grow in coming years. “I think that water is going to be the next big battleground. It’ll make the fuel crisis look like Disneyland. If we can figure out how to grow at least some basic food crops, grains, vegetables and fruits, without a lot of water, that will be a huge benefit, because we may be forced into that at some point.”

Bob also sees many potential opportunities in changing climate conditions. The Quinn Farm moved from zone 3 to zone 4 in the new USDA growing zone map released in 2012, opening up some new fruit-growing possibilities. Bob explains, “I’m pretty interested in seeing what plants can survive on the prairie and what we can do with fruit juices and that sort of thing. We are more than a thousand miles from the nearest orange tree, so why are we drinking orange juice every morning? That’s what I ask my friends.”
Bob has been experimenting with a new fruit juice drink that makes use of sour cherries, a fruit that can be grown locally. Sour cherry juice has as the vitamin C and antioxidants of orange juice, but is too sour to drink alone. “A mix of sweet apple cider and sour cherry juice makes an amazingly robust and zesty breakfast drink,” says Bob. “People don’t think about growing cherries out on the prairie, but we get a huge production from our hardy sour cherry trees. Canadian researchers have shown that if you protect fruit trees with some kind of a shelterbelt, some kind of protection against direct winds, which are pretty fierce on the prairie, you can have success with them. That’s what we’ve done and we are showing that to be true.”

Years of active research and development work has left Bob a little frustrated at the slow erosion of support for government technical assistance programs like the Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Cooperative Extension Service. “My biggest complaint is that they do not have time to help with inventive projects. There are no provisions to help people that want to try something completely different or in a different way. They’re way overloaded with these programs that someone else has designed. They don’t have any time for ingenuity and something different, and I think that’s too bad. They didn’t use to be that way. They used to be a resource for any kind of soil conservation project that you might want to dream up.”

“I wish that we could send that message to Washington somehow,” Bob goes on, “that they don’t have all the answers, and by pretending that they do, they really stifle imagination and response to some of these future challenges. Especially now, when things are obviously changing, we need to really be thinking of as many different solutions as possible, not trying to apply a solution that worked in the last decade. Many of those old solutions were fine, but they might not work in the future nearly as well as something that some people are only just starting to think about now, or something that hasn’t even been thought of yet.”

Bob has long been recognized for his innovative leadership in sustainable agriculture and organic farming research and business development. He is a recipient of AERO’s Sustainable Agriculture Award (1988), was honored for a lifetime of service by the Montana Organic Association (2007) and received the National Organic Leadership Award from the Organic Trade Association in 2010. In 2011, Bob was named a Good Food Hero in recognition of his work with ancient grains, organic production and improving food quality and in 2013, the Rodale Research Institute recognized him with a national Organic Pioneer Award. Quinn Farm and Ranch is one of sixty American farms and ranches selected for the USDA-SARE publication “The New American Farmer: Profiles of Agricultural Innovation.”


Brown’s Ranch

Brown’s Ranch

Brown’s Ranch

Gabe Brown, Brown’s Ranch, Bismarck, North Dakota. Credit: Brian Devore.

There is so much variability now that you really can’t plan on anything. It seems that every year is an extreme. Really, I can’t honestly say there is anything that we really plan on as far as the weather anymore. There is definitely more variability and precipitation from year and more variability in temperature.

Gabe Brown

Brown’s Ranch

Northern Great Plains Region | Bismarck, ND

Main Product: Grain

Scale: 5000 acres under management

Featured Resilience Behaviors:

Holistic management, shift to diversified rotations w/livestock integration, grassland restoration w/intensive grazing, livestock adaptation to local conditions, shift to direct markets.

This story is based on a 2014 interview.

Gabe Brown has been producing cattle, feed and food grains near Bismarck, North Dakota, for more than thirty years. When he began farming on the ranch, natural resource quality was poor. The cropland had been intensively tilled for many years, soils were very low in organic matter, and light rains of as little as a half inch an hour caused surface runoff and soil erosion. Weeds, insects, low soil moisture and poor fertility all seemed to be holding down crop yields and the ranch’s extensive native grasslands were in poor health too.

After he and his wife Shelly purchased the ranch from her parents in 1991, Gabe knew that he wanted to make some changes. He began transitioning the ranch to no-till, to diversify crop rotations and to management-intensive grazing in order to build soil quality. In 1993, Gabe converted all of his cropland to no-till and the following year he added peas, a legume crop, to the spring wheat, oats and barley that had been grown for many years on the ranch. Encouraged by the improvements he saw in soil quality in those first two years, Gabe planned to continue making changes to build soil quality and biodiversity on the ranch, but extreme weather caused near total crop losses at Brown Ranch for the next four years in a row.

“Back in the mid ’90s,” Gabe recalls, “I went through three years of hail and one year of drought. After you lose your crops four years in a row, the banker is not going to loan you money.” Short on operating funds, he didn’t have much of a choice except to continue working to improve resource quality on the ranch. He didn’t have the money to purchase fertilizers or pesticides for the croplands. “Since that time I’ve really focused on the soil resource and on improving the water cycle, energy cycle and nutrient cycle using holistic management practices,” Gabe explains. “It has been a journey, one long learning process.”

Today, the Brown Ranch includes about 2,000 acres of native rangeland that has never been tilled, 1,000 acres of perennial introduced forages and 2,000 acres of no-till, dryland cropland producing corn, peas (grain and forage types), spring wheat, oats, barley, sunflowers, vetch, triticale, rye and alfalfa, plus a great diversity of cover crops. Throughout the year, as many as seventy different species are planted in various fields. The grains, sunflower seeds, peas and alfalfa are sold for cash while cattle, poultry and sheep are rotationally grazed through the grasslands, cover crops and forages. No insecticides or fungicides have been used on the ranch for over a decade, herbicide use has been cut by over 75 percent and no synthetic fertilizer has been used since 2008. Corn yields average 20 percent higher than the county average.

Water management is no longer a big issue at Brown Ranch, where Gabe has seen first-hand the benefits of soil quality for reducing weather-related risks to production. “After no-till for twenty-plus years, very diverse crop rotations, cover crops, plus livestock integration, we’ve improved the health of our soil to the point that the infiltration rate, the water-holding capacity and the nutrient cycle are totally different now. Our average annual precipitation is about sixteen inches. Before, when we were only infiltrating a half of an inch per hour, we got very little of that water into the soil profile. We were always fighting a lack of moisture, whereas now, virtually every raindrop that falls we’re able to hold.” Over the twenty years that Gabe, his wife Shelly and their son Paul have worked to transition the ranch to a more sustainable production system, soil organic matter levels in the croplands have more than tripled and the soil infiltration rate has increased from one half inch to eight inches per hour.

Gabe really noticed weather extremes getting more frequent starting somewhere around 2006 or 2007. Flooding in parts of North Dakota seems to have become the norm rather than a rare event and more variable weather has complicated fieldwork and made crop production more difficult. “It used to be we knew we had a window of time when it’s usually dry and we can harvest some forages or plant a crop,” says Gabe. “We could plan for harvest during that dry period and plant crops according to a plan. That’s no longer the case.”

Gabe says the most effective climate-risk management tool he has is the capacity of the ranch’s healthy soils to buffer more variable rainfall and temperatures. “If you can improve your soil resource and make these soils more resilient,” says Gabe, “you’ll be able to weather these extremes in moisture and temperature much more easily. I can easily go through a two-year drought and it does not affect our operation to any great extent because the soil is so much more resilient. Now you’re still going to have some swings in yields with annual precipitation, but it does not affect crop yields to the extent that it used to. If you have a healthy resilient soil resource and a functioning water cycle then your crops and livestock are not nearly as susceptible to these extremes.”

Gabe appreciates the flexibility his diverse crop rotation allows him in variable weather conditions. Because he plants throughout the year, he can make adjustments to fine-tune the crop rotation plan to current weather conditions. “That’s the beauty of the diverse system of ours,” Gabe explains. “At times, we want to plant the cover crop and then if the weather conditions change, maybe it’s dry, we’ll change the mix of that species a bit for more crop types that can handle drier conditions or vice versa. We have a really big toolbox to choose from.” This ability to switch out crops gives Gabe more ability to adapt his crop rotation to weather variability and extremes than other producers growing just a few crops, a point that has not been lost on the conventional producers that visit the Brown Ranch to see for themselves how Gabe’s farming system works. Gabe explains, “I tell people this when I speak in the Corn Belt. Those guys plant either corn or soybeans — that’s all they plant. If corn and beans don’t work out for those guys, then they’re going to have a poor year, whereas we have the ability to switch in or out of so many different crops. It just makes management so much easier.”

Gabe has also made changes to his livestock production to better fit it to the ranch’s natural environment and to improve natural resources on the farm. He uses management-intensive grazing techniques and grazes his cattle on native prairie, improved pastures, and annual cover crops. Gabe explains, “The way we manage our livestock operations, there are very few weather-related events that will affect our animals. We used to calve in February and March, so shelter, animal health and feeding during the cold were all a problem. Now, we calve in late May and June out on grass and that is a healthy environment for them. Due to our selection process the cattle are now more adapted our environment. We raise cattle in a much more natural way now. The environmental extremes do not affect our livestock as much anymore.”

For more than a decade, Gabe has been a popular speaker at farming conferences throughout the country. He also hosts thousands of visitors to the ranch each year and is proud to say that he has hosted visitors from all fifty states and sixteen foreign countries over the years. As weather variability and extremes have increased, Gabe has noticed a groundswell of interest in his methods from farmers and ranchers with a more conventional mindset. “The weather is always brought up at every meeting, because they are seeing more extremes and more variability and they are asking, ‘How do I buffer that?’ Every place I go these days I am speaking to full rooms of people because they are realizing that the conventional agriculture model just isn’t working. They’ve been through a period here the last several years of very good commodity prices, but it’s rapidly changing and they realize they can’t keep going on the way they are.”

Gabe is also heartened by new connections being made between soil health and human well-being. “People are starting to see how the conventional production model is contributing to the human health crisis in this country. I think that a lot of this relates to the soil and how we’ve degraded it. This has led to the destruction of the water cycle, and that’s severely affecting society. People are seeing they have to change. That’s why soil health and regenerating our resources is so important.”

Gabe expressed concern about the barriers created by crop insurance in grain production. “The current program is antagonistic to healthy soils,” says Gabe. “Farmers are now making planting decisions based on crop insurance guarantees. This leads to lower diversity which negatively affects soils and it is terrible for the consumer. Ideally, I would like to see all federal subsidies for crop insurance eliminated. If this were done producers would quickly learn that the success of their operation depends on a healthy soil ecosystem. If we truly want to regenerate our soils, crop insurance subsidies should be eliminated.” Gabe believes that programs to reward good soil management would be an effective way to encourage changes in farm management practices, but he acknowledges that such programs could create a whole lot of bureaucracy too.

Asked about the future, Gabe is confident that the resilience he has cultivated on his ranch will serve him well as climate change intensifies. He is optimistic, too, about the increased interest in his production system. “No matter what the reason,” says Gabe, “weather, economics, or a little of both, there is growing interest among conventionally-minded grain producers in how soil health can increase production system resilience.”

Gabe Brown is nationally recognized for his innovative work in soil quality and integrated production systems. He is a popular speaker at farming conferences throughout the country and regularly hosts tours and workshops at the Brown Ranch. He has actively participated for many years in soil quality research on his ranch in collaboration with university and federal scientists. Brown’s Ranch won the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association’s Environmental Stewardship Award in 2006 and Gabe was named the USA Zero-Till Farmer of the Year in 2007. He is the recipient of the 2008 Honor Award from the Soil and Water Conservation Society. In 2012, Gabe was honored with the Food Producer’s Growing Green Award by the Natural Resources Defense Council. Gabe was a featured speaker at the 2014 National Cover Crop and Soil Health Conference, a landmark event that brought together three hundred agricultural leaders and innovators to explore how to enhance the sustainability of American agriculture through improved soil health.