Organic Farming for Fun and Profit

Published July 1, 1999

A third-generation farmer says his conversion to organic farming methods in the mid-1980s has proven to be more than just a smart financial move.

In fact, profitability finishes behind having fun and employing sound scientific principles as the main reasons he prefers the methods he now uses.

And best of all, because he uses no chemical additives on his farm, he is free from state and federal environmental restrictions that could otherwise interfere with his ability to pursue market opportunities.

“I have learned that there is a lot more to soil health and plant nutrition than just providing the plant an abundance of nitrogen and phosphate and a few other essential minerals,” wrote Robert Quinn in an article for PERC Reports, a publication of the Political Economy Research Center in Bozeman, Montana.

Quinn, who has a degree in plant biochemistry, operates his farm southeast of Big Sandy, Montana. He is the founder and president of Montana Flour & Grains in Fort Benton.

The switch to organic farming came by accident when Quinn and his family returned to his father’s farm in 1978 and soon discovered that the existing operation was unable to produce enough income to support both families. At the time, the 2,400-acre farm was equally divided between small grain crops and pasture for cattle.

Five years later, demand from whole-grain bakeries in California led to the farm’s production of high-quality grain; in 1985 Quinn opened his own stone flour mill about 50 miles from the farm. It was during this period that one of his customers asked if Quinn could provide organically grown grain.

Both Quinn and his father had been skeptical of the non-traditional practice, but they took the plunge in 1986 after the son attended a health food show and came away convinced there was a viable market for organically produced foods.

That year the Quinns converted 20 acres (or about 1 percent) of their land to organic methods. By the end of 1987, one-fourth of their acreage had been converted. The following year, the entire farm went organic.

“I would never encourage such a crash program; a five- to six-year conversion period is much better as it can be done with little loss in productivity or profitability,” said Quinn.

A farmer’s bottom line is significantly affected by the costs associated with such “inputs” as chemical purchases each spring, said Quinn. He noted that the key goals of a farming enterprise are to “reduce the cost of your inputs, increase the value of your outputs, and enjoy the increase in your bottom line.” The elimination of chemical inputs, Quinn said, ended his need for an annual operating loan from the bank.

Quinn suggests that those who still depend on large quantities of chemicals may soon find themselves in serious trouble if, as now scheduled, federal payments to grain farmers end in a few years.

“During the mid-1980s, when government payments to grain farmers were perhaps at their highest level, we used nearly our entire government check to pay for the chemical inputs on our farm,” Quinn said.

While acknowledging that organic farming has its own set of difficulties, including the need for closer management techniques, Quinn said it has made farming an enjoyable livelihood once again because it allows him to experiment with different crops, soil erosion prevention, and insect control. Ladybugs, other beneficial insects, and birds have increased in number on the Quinn farm, while the tilth of the soil has improved and wind and water erosion have been reduced.

Most people think of organic farming and gardening as nothing more than allowing produce to grow without the aid of man-made substances, but Quinn notes the process is much more complicated than that.

“We focus on nurturing the soil rather than just feeding plants with highly soluble fertilizers,” he said. “We study cycles, particularly of pests, so we can learn where the pests’ weak points lie and how they might be managed properly.”

The natural balances found in this method of growing crops are no different than those found in oceans, forests, and prairies, he said. That is, there are four principles at work: interdependence, diversity, balance, and cycles.

And what about yields?

Quinn does not share the concerns of those who argue that feeding the world with organically produced crops would require the cultivation of all the planet’s wilderness and wildlife areas.

He said his farm’s productivity falls during years of very wet weather compared with the farms of neighbors who use chemicals, but his yields are about the same during average years. During dry weather, he said, he normally harvests more, adding that in the long run there is very little difference in yields.

“Organic farming is not a panacea, the solution to all of agriculture’s problems,” he said. “It has its own frustrations and challenges. The rewards to me, however, far outweigh the difficulties. I am glad and thankful that I was introduced to organic farming and am able to purse it profitably.”

Quinn also notes that, at a time when many are encouraging their children to avoid careers in agriculture, he would not hesitate to urge the nation’s youth to consider organic farming and gardening.

“I see its future as bright.”