Meet Bob, The Farmer Behind Montana Harvest
Our founder, Valérie, met the pioneer of Organic farming, Bob Quinn, when she was speaking at the Raise The Green Bar Summit in New York City (of all places!). She laughs reflecting on the time because in a sea full of women was a charismatic man in a cowboy hat. She instantly knew they needed to connect, but what came after was the best of both worlds: Organic farming meets clean, French skincare in the Montana Harvest Omega Oil Cleanser. We asked Bob Quinn of the Oil Barn some questions to learn more about his practice and the farm that produces the magical Organic oils in our cleanser!
What’s a day in the life of Bob at The Oil Barn?
These days, my life and involvement at The Oil Barn is somewhat limited and reduced due to the excellent work and leadership of Drew Shanafelt who has been with us for nearly 2 years as our plant manager. He came with a love and passion for producing good food using regenerative Organic systems. I have introduced him to the idea of expanding the use of healthy oils from just food to also use on our bodies in all forms of regenerative Organic body care products. So, he is now doing the bulk of the day-to-day work in the management of the Oil Barn which is located in an old cow barn just a few paces from our house in the middle of our farm and ranch near Big Sandy, Montana. This is the same barn where I learned to milk the family milk cow and care for my pigs as a kid and taught my daughters to do the same as they were growing up.
Even though the outside looks the same, the interior has now been completely refurbished to meet or exceed food grade standards. I still check in with Drew a time or two each day to see how things are doing and answer any questions he might have and talk over new ideas and prospects for the future. Most of the rest of my time in the growing season, at least, is spent on the 4 acres I have retained for myself after renting out the rest of the 4000 acre farm and ranch to a couple guys who had been working for me for several years. They are doing a great job continuing the goal of improving the system of regenerative Organic agriculture I had been working on for over 35 years.
Meanwhile, I am trying to raise all my own food and research ways we can produce more food on the northern great plains with little rainfall and no irrigation. I am testing different systems of dryland vegetable production and growing fruit trees and berry and nut bushes in my small orchard. This year I hope to expand those experiments into a subterranean greenhouse I am building.
What made you decide to become a pioneer in the Organic farming industry?
I never really thought about deciding to become a pioneer. I think it was a natural expression of my curiosity and interest in science and trying new things. As I studied my family history and listened to stories my grandparents told me, I was brought up with a tradition of being a pioneer as I heard about my great grandparents coming across the plains in covered wagons, my grandfather being born in a sod house in Nebraska, my grandmother riding her horse several miles for piano lessons, etc., etc. I guess I had a pioneering spirit in my genes, you might say.
In the mid 1980's I saw our farm becoming less and less profitable to the point we were no longer able to pay all of our input costs with the money we were receiving for the wheat and calves we sold each fall. In response, I first started selling the high protein wheat we grew directly to whole grain bakers in California and that helped a little. It was while expanding this new business that I was introduced to an additional set of friends who were organic farmers. I was intrigued by their stories and passion for what they were doing on their farms to produce healthier food, grow their own inputs and build healthier soils. I decided to try a small organic experiment on my farm and after just 2 years of experimenting, I was convinced of the superiority of sustainable (as we called it in those days) Organic production systems. I was an instant convert and continued researching ways to improve the system on our farm for the next 35 years. After seeing the success of my small experiment, I immediately started to convert my whole farm to Organic production by the end of 1988. I then wanted to share what I was learning with others and became active in promoting regenerative Organic agriculture first throughout Montana, and then the nation and eventually the world.
I saw that a return to the principles of conventional agriculture of the last 10,000 years using our modern understanding of how things work scientifically and are all interconnected was an answer to so many of the problems created by the last few decades (since WWII) of depending on our great industrial chemical agricultural experiment. The goal of this experiment was to produce an abundance of cheap food. However, the unintended consequences and the cost of such an experiment has become so great that the need of a better alternative is screaming out to us.
We see the decline in family farms (over half of the family farms in our neighborhoods have disappeared in the last 50 years), the subsequent decline in rural America (our little town of Big Sandy has gone from a population of 1000 in the 1960's to less than 600 today), the great chemical pollutants covering our country (the well water in Iowa is no longer fit for children to drink, we have a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico the size of New Jersey, we have traces of Roundup in the rain that falls on most of the Great Plains) and finally the serious decline in the health of our people.
CDC figures say 60% of Americans have at least one chronic disease and 40% have 2 or more. They go on to say that 60% of that problem is due to diet - not just junk food but also due to a general decline in the nutrient value of that food. Regenerative Organic systems have the answer to all these recent problems and are the only future for ag and food projection that makes sense. That hope we have in changing agriculture from a source of problems to a source of solutions fuels my passion to continue to help with pioneering efforts in this regard.
Why Safflower & Hemp Oil? What are the benefits?
The Safflower varieties we are using to produce our oil are a result of many years of efforts of Jerry Bergman, who worked at a Montana State University research station in Eastern Montana. His goal was to use natural plant breeding and selection techniques to produce a Safflower Oil which was as good as an olive oil (we can not grow olive trees in Montana). He used no GMO techniques or mutagenic agents to produce new plants the way canola was developed. After many years, he successfully found Safflower plants with 75-80% oleic acid in the oil. This mono-unsaturated fatty acid is very stable hence the best oil for high temperature cooking including popcorn and stir fry.
These same properties make it soothing and healing for the skin and therefore a wonderful product for body care products.
All of our oil is cold pressed and unrefined which means many other oil soluble nutrients are in our oil which have been removed from other oils which have undergone deodorization and decolorization techniques. Our Safflower Oil has a nutty aroma and a pleasing light flavor that does not overpower other ingredients used in cooking or manufacturing. We have only recently been working with industrial Hemp Seed Oil which we have also found to have significant health benefits for the body inside and out including soothing and protecting many challenges to keeping skin healthy. When you add all those benefits to the fact the oil is from regenerative Organic production, you do not ever have to worry that you are putting chemical residues from spray applications in your mouth or on your skin.
What makes your farm different?
Our farm was started by my grandfather over 100 years ago in 1920. For three generations we have farmed this land. We first used up the resources in the soil that were a result of thousands of years of natural soil building processes during the 1st generation. During the 2nd generation, we tried to replace those diminished soil nutrients with artificial chemical compounds and protect our crops with artificial chemical pesticide poisons.
Now with the 3rd generation, we have returned to a focus on building up the soil using the principles of regenerative Organic agriculture. We start with good seed, selected for great properties over many generations. Good seed is added to healthy soil. We now focus on feeding the soil rather than feeding the plant with the understanding that healthy soils produce healthy plants. Healthy plants can better resist disease and insects but most importantly contribute significantly to the health of those who use these plants or their products to either feed and promote the vitality of their body or nourish and protect their skin. We produce no commodities on our farm, we only produce good food and oils for skincare products which can bring good health and longevity to all who use them. We focus on high nutrition and high quality rather than high yields for cheap prices.
How do you incorporate sustainability into your business? Your personal life?
In order for a business to be sustainable, I believe everyone involved must be successful. That means everyone should receive fair compensation for the effort that goes into increasing the quality of the final product. In our case, this starts with the farmer who grows the seed in the first place, then extends to the processor who mills the grain or presses the oil seeds and finally to the manufacturer who makes the finished product which ultimately ends up in the hands of the buyers and their families.
If this vision of quality and compensation throughout the entire chain is in proper focus and balance, everyone wins and all those involved are sustained by the success of the whole process. In my personal life, I am trying to demonstrate that we can be more sustainable by shortening our food chain. I am trying to grow all the food I eat. At this point 70% of everything I eat while I am home is raised on my farm. I support other regenerative Organic farmers by trying to buy Organic food and products whenever and wherever I can find them. At this time about 90% of the food I eat or personal care items I use are Organic.
Could you give your top 3 tips to make farms more sustainable?
1. Make sure you have a good crop rotation in place for at least 4 to 8 years(the crop rotation on our farm is 9 years). This should include a very robust soil building program.
2. Make sure you keep learning - keep good records of what is happening on your farm so you can identify causes of problems so you can address them and not just treat symptoms of problems, continue to try new crops, new rotations and new systems - continue to read, watch and listen to expert speakers on Organic ag and participate in regenerative Organic conferences and local organizations supporting these ideals.
3. Make sure you are fair and honest in your dealings with neighbors, customers and suppliers - to expect loyalty and fairness you should be first a giver of the same.
Can you explain why supporting local, Organic farmers is so important?
As we saw this past year when some store shelves went empty during the pandemic, there is no real security in faraway markets and extremely long food chains. By supporting local, Organic farmers, we shorten the food chain. We are supporting first of all local farmers with an opportunity to receive fair compensation for what they produce, in turn they are then better able to support their local communities. If we add supporting small local processors, we are strengthening both the farmer and the community. We put the money spent on fuel and other transportation costs into the local community. If you add this to the resultant growth of local Organic agriculture you see a reduction in the use and abuse of poison ag chemicals in agriculture which will reduce the chemical pollution in our environment, locally, regionally and nationally.
On the international stage Organic ag holds vital keys for the mitigation of climate change (or climate chaos as I like to refer to it). There are two main keys, actually: the first is the elimination of chemically produced nitrogen fertilizers which are responsible for 60% of the greenhouse gases attributed to agriculture and the second is the sequestration of the excess carbon now in our atmosphere by increasing the Organic matter of the soil when Organic systems are introduced. So if you want to change the world for the better, buy Organic products whenever you can. It is a good investment for our health and the health of our families, the health of our community, the health of our planet and, finally, the health of our people.